The FA Cup’s decline is not the fault of the competition

EVERY year, the same question is asked: has the FA Cup lost its appeal? The pundit class continually tells us how amazing it still is, the Football Association mounts a campaign on an annual basis to big it up, but no matter how much we try to convince ourselves, we know it isn’t 1952 anymore. The nation does not come to a standstill on FA Cup final day and nobody is ever going to reintroduce community singing to the pre-match ceremony.

This week, Chelsea and Liverpool meet in the final, Chelsea’s fourth in five years, Liverpool’s first since 2012 when the Blues beat them 2-1. It will be the 11th final involving two so-called Premier big six clubs. The hallowed half dozen have won 25 of the last 29 cup finals, so don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t matter to the top clubs, if anything you wish it didn’t matter as much to give others a chance. And yet, those same clubs continually devalue the competition, fielding weakened teams as they rest their prized assets.

Part of the FA Cup’s endearing charm was that it was live on TV and probably the only game the entire population could watch as it was taking place. This alone gave it special status, but the other aspect was the sudden-death element of the game, something that bread and butter league games did not provide. In the 1960s, if a team lost a league fixture, it was not the end of the world, but elimination from the FA Cup was very upsetting and meant your team had to wait another year for a triumphant run to the twin towers. Today, every Premier League game is treated as though the outcome of the season depends upon it. This is partly attributable to the TV broadcasters, who talk-up every screened contest as being so very vital.

The FA Cup has slipped down the list of priorities, but that’s because of the financial rewards available from every league placing and the possibility of Champions League football. It does seem as the though the concept of “glory” comes in a very poor second to TV money, and yet the cup competitions are something to savour if you are a fan.

We cannot hope to recapture the social calendar aspect of Cup Final day, largely because TV football has become almost a 24 x 7 experience. Back in the 1950s and beyond, the FA Cup final was in the same category as the Derby, the Grand National, the Boat Race and Test matches. The Wembley final was a day-out for the proletariet, even though very few of them could get tickets for the match.

TV coverage started mid-morning in some cases and involved all sorts of activities, from gormless entertainment like “It’s a Knockout” to “Meet the Team”. Again, this kind of nonsense made the game even more attractive. The newspapers had eight-page FA Cup specials, the Daily Mirror was especially notable for its cartoons of the players. The media interviews were as banal as they are today, although a little more authentic as the world wasn’t sinking under a wave of cliché and jargon. There was a buzz on Cup Final day that really doesn’t exist today, and that’s because we live in an age where you can have anything you want at any time. The final’s scarcity value was what made it unique.

It was these side dishes that created the aura around the FA Cup. Yes, it was a great afternoon but society has changed so much that nobody wants one memorable occasion. Every football match is supposed to be like that today. If you eat Kobe steak every day, it is longer a treat, it becomes as commonplace as economy mince.

From the perspective of the people running football teams, winning a league is the real mark of performance because it is the week-in, week-out activity. There’s nothing football managers dislike more than uncertainty and cup competitions, traditionally, have been riddled with the prospect of surprise. A league will, in most cases, deliver the right result, but cup shocks can happen to anyone. This was always the mythical romance that surrounded the FA Cup, the highly motivated underdogs winning a final – teams like Wimbledon (1988), Southampton (1976), Sunderland (1973) and Wigan Athletic (2013).

The current leadin lights of the game are so much more powerful than the rest of English football they can afford to drop key players for the cup ties, and still win. They are so fine-tuned, so system-driven, that it is hard to imagine some of the surprises of the past ever happening again. Hence, the starry-eyed, hopeful side of the game is very hard to achieve. The last non-big six winner of the competition was Wigan Athletic, which could turn out to be the last major Wembley shock.

It’s not the fault of the FA Cup that it’s not as influential as it was in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. It can still excite people, but the most predictable thing about the competition has become the destination of the iconic trophy. In 29 years, Arsenal have won nine, Chelsea seven, Manchester United five and Liverpool and Manchester City two apiece. Only Everton (1995), Portsmouth (2008), Wigan (2013) and Leicester (2021) have broken the hold of the top clubs since the Premier League was created.

At the end of the day, the technicians of the Premier League surely resent the fact their data-fuelled plans could be upset by that most haunting of setbacks, “the error”. While over the course of a league programme, the best teams will certainly prevail, sheer doggedness, emotion and basic good fortune have conjured up memorable moments in the history of the FA Cup. Nobody will remember an all-conquering team like Manchester City beating a club with fewer resources 6-0 in the final, but they will talk for years about heroes of Wembley who have pulled off the unexpected. The FA Cup’s future does rely on surprises happening every now and then, but it is getting harder and harder to achieve “giant-killing”. If anything, this is why the Cup has mislaid its mass appeal. Knockout football should not merely be an extension of the Premier League schedule.

Erik Ten Hag and the pursuit of a smarter football club

ERIK TEN HAG, at last, has been appointed manager of Manchester United and the fans cannot wait to welcome their new man through the door. The hope is, after almost a decade of frustration, that Ten Hag can return United to the forefront of European football. Everyone is enthused, but the same script has been read before, at least four times since Sir Alex hung up his stopwatch.

It is arguably the boldest move made by the United board since Ferguson retired, the hiring of a coach who has enjoyed success in the Eredivisie with Ajax but has never managed at a higher level. There is a big difference between the Dutch league and the Premier League, as players who have made the move to England have found out, and despite the status of Ajax (four times European champions), Manchester United will thrust Ten Hag into an intense cauldron of expectation and employers with diminishing patience.

Can he handle it? United is rapidly becoming a basket case of a club where highly-paid players have underperformed and the rise of Manchester City has made the country’s most successful club more neurotic by the day. They’ve spent heavily but there’s a lack of strategy, a whole load of short-termism and some huge egos that need stroking. United have also developed a peculiar penchant for signing late-career superstars such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani and Cristiano Ronaldo. But since 2013, they have won just three trophies, the last in 2017. For a club accustomed to winning trophies in clusters, this has become a crisis. It is not out of the question they may not be in Europe in 2022-23.

One of the big competitive differentiators in football today is intelligence – Manchester United have to get smarter.

Ten Hag, everyone keeps reminding us, created a very exciting Ajax team a couple of years ago, but they were beaten by Tottenham Hotspur in the semi-finals of the Champions League. That team was packed with youngsters who earned Ajax a lot of money when they were [inevitably] sold, but it has to be noted Ten Hag was not the creator of a system that continually creates such talent. The system is Ajax’s business model that enables them to remain competitive. They develop young players, introduce them to the first team and then sell them. It is a model that has proved to be very successful. Ten Hag harnessed those players and moulded them into a team that was not far away from being European champions. This doesn’t mean he will replicate that process at Old Trafford, it really depends on how much raw talent he has in the United youth structure.

Manchester United is his big step-up test and it couldn’t be tougher. Apparently, he will not have a huge transfer budget, possibly a hangover from below-par transfer market activity over the past decade. It may also be down to United’s falling revenues; they have been overtaken by Manchester City in the Deloitte Football Money League this year, which provides some indication of their commercial decline. Nevertheless, United will surely allow him to strengthen the team with West Ham’s Declan Rice being among the list of players to be considered. United also need options up front and in the heart of defence. There will also be an exodus of players who are not going to get any better in a United shirt, such as Paul Pogba.

Ten Hag will need time and that is not a luxury afforded to managers at top clubs these days. He may have signed a contract that takes him to 2025 (with an option for another 12 months), but will he get that long? One would hope that the United suits will bear in mind the club has stagnated for at least five years and they have fallen away from contention. For the past few seasons, there has been an obsession that it is always the coach’s fault, but the club’s owners would be justified in looking at how transfer targets are identified and evaluated. United may need to go backwards to go forwards and take apart their entire structure to build something that is far-reaching, self-perpetuating and sustainable. They need to look at Manchester City, but not in the pursuit of finding their own Pep Guardiola. One of the key competitive differentiators in football today is intelligence. United have to get smarter.