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.

Pep’s City may need a clenched fist

ANOTHER drama, another collapse. Manchester City, European champions-elect virtually every year since 2016, crashed out in the most bizarre circumstances. City went to Madrid with a one-goal advantage from the first leg, but they also conceded three goals in the process. In another age, a one-goal lead would have been considered precarious. Riyad Mahrez extended that lead to two goals and that should have been it, but then the world caved in. Madrid had discovered from that chaotic first leg that City let goals in.

Notwithstanding the durability of Real Madrid and their European heritage, City’s inability to hang on to a 5-3 aggregate lead demonstrated a certain weakness in their make-up. Although Pep Guardiola claims the club’s owners have never insisted tthe Champions League is a priority, no investor would spend as much money to merely win a domestic league that could be won by far less. Paris Saint-Germain have the same issue in France, although they are not as stretched as City.

The target has to be European domination, but the problem is, that is also the goal of the elite band that City now belong. They may have a big advantage locally, but moving into a different socio-economic group means fiercer competition from clubs with more know-how.

As we have seen with PSG, failure on the European stage triggers a release clause in the form of a manager getting sacked. City, to their credit, are not quite as impatient, although after six years of Guardiola they must be wondering what they have to do to win the big prize. Progress has been made, however, with the last two seasons delivering a final and semi-final, the two best seasons under Guardiola in the competition. The expectation hasn’t necessarily come from the coach or the club, City have been relatively quiet about their hopes and they have generally been very respectful about each and every opponent.

City’s league form under Guardiola is beyond impressive – 167 wins in 225 games, a win rate of 74.22%, 2.47 goals per game and a yearly average points haul of 88. In the past few years, they have been egged-on by the emergence of Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool and the two teams are far more advanced than the rest of the competition. This pre-eminence simply places these teams among the best in Europe, but the dynamic changes at this point, although it is very clear that the Premier League’s wealth is starting to move City and Liverpool ahead of the game. If the Champions League was a genuine league, these clubs would be at the top, because financial power, coupled with an intelligent approach to coaching, player acquisition and a sustainable structure, will always give them a big advantage.

Knockout competitions are different, especially those that included two-legged ties. Ask most football followers and they will tell you the Champions League becomes exciting when it reached the KO phase. Excitement doesn’t just come from predictable, attritional league games, it comes from the unexpected, from the sheer theatre of it all.

Maybe, just maybe, City need a different, more industrial approach for these games than the purist technique and long-distance running of the Premier League. Guardiola’s City have won five Cups, four of which have been the EFL Cup, a competition that doesn’t seem to overstretch them. Only once have they won the FA Cup. Their real strength lies in the long-haul competition, where class prevails and victories can be notched-up at their own pace. Hence, City slipped back into gear quite easily against Newcastle United, winning 5-0. Klopp knew what he was talking about when he said he could not see City dropping points.

At the same time, the vision we all have of Manchester City is not of a team scrapping for points and success, it is more of a sweeping tide of beautiful, skilful football that overwhelms the opposition. Perhaps there is one element that can be improved in the City set-up, but it may not be aligned to Guardiola’s character? He has coached Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City, clubs where he has had the pick of the best talent and financial power over the rest of the league. Has a fist ever been clenched in the City dressing room?

Manchester City will, one day, become European champions, but it may not be in Guardiola’s time. The club is wealthier than almost every rival and can attract any players they choose to focus on. But they may have to develop a harder edge and that doesn’t appear to be Pep’s way. Serial champions is one thing, but achieving greatness among a select peer group could require muscle and blood. Right now, in Abu Dhabi, they will be casting their eyes enviously at Liverpool and Real Madrid, two clubs that have solved the mystery of the holy grail.