The ‘Emirates’ FA Cup is not taken seriously by the bigger teams. Elite European football and domestic prize money are prioritised. An incentive needs to be created, but it cannot be too drastic.
Seeing how the FA Cup evolved provides a reality check to those at boardroom level of how diminished this competition has become.
When The Wanderers beat the Royal Engineers 1-0 in the first FA Cup final in 1872, just over 2,000 plain-spoken mustached men standing around the Kennington Oval probably didn’t foresee the term ‘magic’ associated with this tournament over 100 years later.
Southern Football League Hereford United were expected to lose to Division One Newcastle United. Before that, the last time a non-league side had beaten a top-flight club was in 1949 when Yeovil Town defeated Sunderland. So when Malcolm MacDonald scored with eight minutes to go, the 23-year-old record looked like it would stay intact. But Ronnie Radford had other ideas. His strike plus Rickie George’s goal in added time sent delirious fans onto the pitch. Not only had they beaten the brand of Newcastle, but the players that would make 2,335 caps for the club.
Newcastle’s purportedly superior athletes faced a modern day Goliath five divisions below them but played their very best. With the European Cup still a maturing stem trying to flower in the English game, the FA Cup took precedence for the top teams. The Sunderland side that was shocked in 1949 included players who would go on to make 2,210 appearances for the North East club. Lower division sides weren’t just knocking out the bigger name; they were beating the players who created that aura.
The probability that higher quality teams will play their full strength side in the FA Cup is now significantly diminished. The Liverpool team that drew 2-2 with Exeter in the third round had only made 34 appearances in the famous red shirt. When Manchester United entertained non-league Crawley Town in 2011, the team included Gabriel Obertan and Tiago Bebe. When Bradford City produced the greatest comeback since Lazarus, it was against a Chelsea team that didn’t include John Terry, Eden Hazard or Cesc Fabregas in the starting 11. Nowadays, because the top sides do not usually play their best squads against lower opposition, the dramatic tale of a cup upset can be somewhat less auspicious than in previous eras.
Due to the increased frequency of games that Premier League clubs play and the television money that has blasted into England’s top league, hiking up the table is more attractive; the glinting golden egg of UEFA Champions League revenue sits arrogantly in the top four places. Although lower division clubs do benefit from TV money in the FA Cup, Cambridge United collected £144,000 from their televised third round tie with Manchester United, executives of larger sides act like a panda in the snow when large sums of money are available. The wealth Arsenal achieved in the FA Cup in 2014 stood at £4.2 million, but the £25 million they received in the Champions League far outweighed that figure.
The importance of the FA Cup seems to be decreasing, but looking to the continent may find a solution. Michel Platini’s quick fix of improving the reputation of the Europa League was to give the winner of the competition a place in the Champions League. So why not increase the stakes in England and give the winner of the FA Cup a Champions League place?
However, given that Portsmouth and Wigan Athletic won the competition in 2008 and 2013 respectively, offering an automatic day pass into football’s Disneyland is not a clever idea. If either of those teams ended up playing Barcelona or Bayern Munich the coefficient of English clubs would have plummeted, perhaps threatening England’s right to four league spots for the Champions League.
So what about a two-legged play-off with the team that finishes fourth in the Premier League? There would be no doubt that the winner of the tie would deserve to play in the Champions League the following season.
Of course, a myriad of eventualities could scupper these plans. If the team in fourth wins the Champions League or Europa League do domestic or continental qualification laws take precedence? If both sides in the FA Cup final qualify for the Champions League through the Premier League, do the semi-finalists contest for the right for a European play-off with the fourth placed team?
Abolishing traditional FA Cup replays is another option, and this would lead to more excitement while also reducing the playing time for players. This concept brings both sides of the argument together. A reduction in FA Cup replays may bring in an effect similar to a continental winter break, decreasing the chance England’s best players becoming tired before an international tournament. Nevertheless, the fact that smaller sides may be barred from visiting grounds such as Old Trafford, Anfield or Stamford Bridge, due to a one-legged tie, reduces the prospect of a smaller side to produce sizeable revenue.
Cutting Wembley semi-finals is a third alternative, but it’s a capitalist’s nightmare. Even though the stadium cost £757 million, with the overall costs reaching £975 million, NFL franchises and pop concerts have brought in a large amount of revenue. Talk amongst the FA hierarchy has already started in terms of moving England friendlies around the country, but bringing Goodison Park and Villa Park as host grounds for semi-finals should also be on the tongues of the FA board. It would give the impression that getting to Wembley is a bit more special than before. However, will the biggest clubs see this as a reason why they should take the competition more seriously? Probably not.