Stop knocking the FA Cup – games at Brighton and Wrexham have kept the flame burning

THIS SEASON’s FA Cup has reminded us why the competition has such an important role to play in football. The games at Aston Villa and Sheffield Wednesday in the third round and at Brighton and Wrexham in the last 32 have lit-up gloomy January weekends and left people calling for more. We love a giant-killing, but we also clamour for cup-ties that have atmosphere, goals and twists in the tale.

Every year, a debate rages on about the terminal decline of the FA Cup, but at the same time, TV and radio keep telling us the competition is so special. They want to encourage viewers and listeners to tune in, but while they do this, managers are fielding weakened teams and sacrificing a cup run for the sake of Premier League mediocrity. In fact, the universal obsession with the Premier League overshadows everything, from cup runs to European trips. There seems to be no value in the glory of a cup run for some clubs. And frankly, when most clubs have absolutely zero chance of a Premier title or a Champions League place, surely the FA Cup and EFL Cup represent the best chance of silverware.

And yet, the FA Cup is won each year by one of the big Premier clubs, so nobody can accuse them of not caring. Since 1992-93, when the Premier League was formed, 26 of the 30 FA Cups have been won by members of the big six: Arsenal (9), Chelsea (7), Liverpool (3), Manchester United (5) and Manchester City (2). Moreover, these clubs have also been runners-up 14 times between them. The only four clubs outside the “big six” to have won the Cup since 1992-93 are Everton (1995), Portsmouth (2008), Wigan (2013) and Leicester (2021).

Clearly, the Premier clubs that field occasionally-seen squad members for their FA Cup ties feel they can either afford to go out cheaply or they have confidence in a second-string XI can do the job. In most cases, they are right, for the size and strength of their squads can overcome opponents in the lower divisions with some comfort. Sometimes, they even field weaker teams when they face another Premier side, such as Arsenal when they made wholesale changes to play Manchester City. As Roy Keane said on TV that evening, they sent a message to everyone that the game was relatively unimportant, and if you’re chasing a first Premier title in 19 years, it may well have been less of a priority for Mikel Arteta.

When Chelsea and Manchester City met in the third round, it was three days after they had clashed in the Premier League. The first game ended 1-0 to City, but on January 8, the two sides made a total of 13 changes to their starting line-ups for the FA Cup tie. City’s weakened side was stronger than Chelsea’s and they won by four goals at the Etihad. But how would you feel if you attended a game and realised you were not watching a set of first choice players?

The managers would probably argue that when the fixtures are coming thick and fast, making changes is a pragmatic way to keep the squad fresh, and they have a point, but it does highlight the change in status of the FA Cup. Perhaps clubs could play fewer meaningless games on summer tours?

In days gone by, the league was the bread and butter, the everyday, and the cup competitions, particularly the FA Cup, used to provide a little bit of gilding among run of the mill fixtures. In 1970, Arsenal versus Burnley in the league was humdrum fare, but if it was Arsenal versus Burnley in the FA Cup, it was a different story. The FA Cup was a distraction from the trials and tribulations of an attritional 42-game league programme. It is now a 38-game fixture list, but somehow everyone believes it is more intense, more demanding in an age of bigger squads and soaring wage bills. It is true that every defeat is treated like the end of days, whereas 50 years ago, cup defeats were the ones that really hurt and league defeats could be quickly forgotten by winning your next game.

The best teams always win the league, that’s for sure because of the format and the need for consistency over a long period which marks the elite. There are no lucky league champions. The FA Cup, traditionally, was a way for clubs to achieve success regardless of their league position. Although there have been fairy-tale FA Cup triumphs, such as the three post-war second division winners of Sunderland, Southampton and West Ham, over half of the FA Cups since 1946-47 have been won by teams that finished in the top six. Only one team has won the FA Cup in this timeframe and been relegated in the same season, Wigan Athletic in 2013.

Wigan Athletic’s win in 2013 was against Manchester City, creating one of the biggest shocks in the final. The act of giant-killing is thankfully still with us, although it’s harder and harder for the minnows to spring a major surprise. This season, Sheffield Wednesday’s victory against Newcastle United and Stevenage’s win at Villa Park will take some beating. Wrexham of the National League almost pulled off a major shock when they were 3-2 up against Sheffield United with seconds remaining in their fourth round game. It ended 3-3, so as the modern day cliché tells us, “we go again”.

The game at Wrexham, along with Brighton’s 2-1 success against holders Liverpool showed everyone that the FA Cup is alive and well and capable of thrilling the public. The competition is a genuine national treasure and should return to the social calendar alongside the Ashes, Wimbledon, the Proms and Henley. There was a time when it was seen as a special day in the English way of life (Brian Glanville, 1970), so attempts to tamper with its place in the game’s heritage should be absolutely discouraged.

Two legs good – the appeal of EFL Cup semi-finals

THERE HAVE been some complaints about the two-legged format of the League Cup semi-finals, that they are adding to an already crowded fixture schedule. The EFL should resist any attempt to scrap this structure because the inevitable alternative would be to take the last four to Wembley, a venue that is already overused and devalued by the constant desire to hold any game of importance at what is a fairly inhospitable location.

Two legs can be an interesting arrangement, giving smaller clubs the chance to pull off a shock result on their own ground and also raising the possibility of two outstanding games between top teams. This is a unique dynamic in English football that would normally only be applied to European knockout stages. The chance of a team overcoming a first leg deficit adds to the excitement and there’s also less prospect of a semi-final drifting off into extra time and the dreaded penalty shoot-out.

It is nonsense to blame fixture congestion on the extra game a two-legged semi-final creates; clubs are quite happy to go off on mid-season jaunts and play friendlies, eager to enter into meaningless summer competitions designed to generate cash and satisfy sponsors and broadcasters in Asia and the US. The EFL Cup has a European place as its reward and is also part of the heritage of the English game. It may have passed its peak years, but as a route into a UEFA competition, it has to be taken seriously.

The semi-finals, over the decades, have provided some memorable games and fairy-tale stories. When the games are local derbies, they are even better. In 1968-69, Arsenal reached a second successive Football League Cup final after beating Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 on aggregate with an injury time winner. Swindon, the eventually winner, came through a three-game semi-final against first division Burnley in a dramatic tie. A year later, the two Manchester clubs fought out a classic, with City winning 4-3 on aggregate to emphasise the local shift in power.

The 1971-72 League Cup had just about the most irresistible set of semi-finals; Chelsea overcame holders Tottenham 5-4 on aggregate, thanks to a last minute soft goal from Alan Hudson, and Stoke City eventually beat West Ham 3-2 at Old Trafford after four meetings, with Bobby Moore taking over in goal after the Hammers’ keeper, Bobby Ferguson, was injured. Although three London clubs were in the semi-final, Stoke won the cup, their first ever trophy.

Another classic local derby saw Arsenal win the 1987 semi-final against Spurs, a tie that went to three games and showed the Gunners’ character in repeatedly coming from behind. Finally, after 301 minutes of a pulsating series, David Rocastle scored the winning goal after substitute Ian Allinson had equalised Clive Allen’s opener for Tottenham. Arsenal went on to win the cup, beating Liverpool 2-1 with two goals from Charlie Nicholas.

A big defeat in the first leg can mean one of two things – a dramatic comeback or no chance whatsoever in the second game. In 1990, Oldham Athletic went into a 4-0 first half lead against West Ham United and by the end of the game, the Hammers’ had sustained a 6-0 mauling on the Latics’ artificial pitch. West Ham won the second leg 3-0, but they could not close the substantial gap. West Ham, back in 1965-66, had inflicted upon Cardiff City a 10-3 semi-final humbling, now they knew what a crushing semi-final defeat felt like.

Tottenham produced a stunning second leg turnaround in 2002 when they beat Chelsea 5-1 at White Hart Lane after the Blues had won the first meeting 2-1 at Stamford Bridge. Spurs, managed by former Chelsea boss Glenn Hoddle, swamped their opponents, whose only goal came from the forgotten Mikkel Forssell in the 90th minute.

There’s not been many sensations in recent times, although Burton Albion received a 9-0 drubbing at the hands of Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium in 2018-19. City, who have dominated the competition over the past eight years, went out to Southampton this season and the Saints will now face Newcastle United in the semi-finals. Nottingham Forest, who have an impressive history in the competition, are playing Manchester United. On the face of it, Southampton and Forest are the underdogs, but the two-legs give them a chance of upsetting the form book. It should make for two riveting semi-final pairings.