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.