The shadow of the FA Cup

Despite hype from the BBC and BT sports there was a time when the third round of the FA Cup was genuinely something that people got excited about.  For starters it was a trophy that was worth winning.  On a sunny May morning everybody would tune in from breakfast with the two finalists right up to the final whistle and presentation of the Cup.  There would even be street parties in the cities or towns that reached the Cup final.

The third round was a chance for clubs who perhaps had not made the best of starts to the season and could rescue it with a good cup run.  There was excited talk of ‘whose name was on the trophy,’ which would refer to those teams that somehow scraped through via a last-minute equaliser for a replay and to win the replayed tie with a bobbled goal on a muddy pitch.

Giant killing was something that was always discussed as lower league clubs got a chance to host and possibly knock out one of the top dogs.  It was a chance to be forever remembered like Hereford’s Ronnie Radford’s winning goal that knocked out Newcastle United.  Then of course there is Mickey Thomas’s winning goal for  fourth division Wrexham against Arsenal in 1992.

Gradually though and certainly after the Premier league had started the FA cup started to lose its allure.  Most point to the FA allowing Manchester United to abstain from the 1999-00 competition in order to allow United to compete in the World Club cup.  Although it was a nail in the coffin for the FA cup it wasn’t just that moment.  It could be argued that it was already building up to the FA cup losing its sparkle but it certainly speeded up the process with the FA voluntarily undermining their own competition.

As always it is a culmination of events that saw the FA cup become a competition that became less attractive.  With the newly formed Premier league formed in 1992 it became apparent that money was the big appeal.   Thanks to the mammoth TV money of Sky that was pumped into the Premier league the gulf in finances between those football clubs that were unlucky not to be in the ‘big,’ league grew with those playing in the elite league more interested in bank balances with the Premier league the be all and end all.

During this period UEFA decided to revamp their club competitions in order to placate the big clubs who felt the current set up did not suit their needs.  To avoid the threat of a breakaway European Super league or even an alternative European cup, UEFA made significant changes to the European Champions cup.

You didn’t need to be the actual champion of your league you could finish second for what would now be called the Champions league.  Eventually for the main leagues the top three places would guarantee you a spot with the fourth placed team being able to take part providing they could get through a two-legged qualifier.

Once in you now played the first proper stage in eight groups of four teams with the top two qualifying for the knock out stages of the last sixteen.  There was none of those risky two-legged affairs were a bad result meant that you were out.  Furthermore there was a guaranteed income as huge money was also pumped into the Champions league.  The UEFA cup became the poor relative and rebranded as the Europa league.   It now became a competition so long-winded with the financial reward nothing compared to the Champions league that a lot of clubs saw it as more of a hindrance.  Incidentally the Cup winners cup became defunct.

It now meant that for clubs the priorities changed.  Whether it was staying in the Premier league or trying to finish in the top four the FA cup became less of a priority.  As more and more money was being pumped into the Premier and Champions league it made supporters accountants.  Incredibly fans would be talking about a good season being finishing in the top four over a good run and possibly winning the FA cup.  Slowly the romance and excitement of the FA cup was eroding as there would be a shrug of the shoulders if their team was knocked out.  The Premier league was all that mattered rather than the glory of a Cup win.

Slowly over time football clubs started to play weaker teams citing that the Premier league took priority.  Previously this would have caused uproar but again there are the nods of the head from some fans who believe it to be the right thing to do.  This season’s third round for example Bournemouth played with a different and weaker XI to their previous league game.  None of it makes sense especially as Bournemouth look comfortable in the league that you would think they would give the FA cup a serious go and a chance of winning a trophy.

Football is about the memories, the day outs and the drama if you go all the way.  Which supporter honestly remembers a season of mediocrity by finishing tenth?  Instead its the trips, and last-minute winners that stick long in the mind.  But again the money of the Premier league overrules any romance.

Another attraction of the FA cup was getting to Wembley.  To see your team play amongst the white towers and to play on that beautiful lawn of a pitch.  It made all those earlier rounds of scraping through on farm fields of a pitch more worthwhile.  Furthermore it made you feel exclusive that your club was one of the few that had the chance of playing at one of the cathedrals of football which was Wembley.

Money though inevitably talks that the semi-finals were no longer played at neutral club grounds like Old Trafford or Villa Park they would all be played at Wembley.  Once again the FA undermined their own competition and upped it by changing the kick off time for the final to five o’clock simply to satisfy TV companies.

The FA cup is only just above the league cup in terms of prestige and that’s only because of its history.  Even then some clubs see it as an inconvenience and only start to take it seriously if they get to the semi-finals.

Money has been one of the major factors on why the FA cup is not as prestigious as it once was.  It certainly hasn’t been helped by the FA who have undermined the Cup.

Winning the FA cup was something major.  It made the headlines and legends were made.  Liverpool for example despite winning league championships only felt that they became part of the elite after beating Leeds United in the 1965 FA cup final.  Then there is the Stanley Matthews final of 1953 or what about second division Sunderland in one of the big cup upsets as they beat Leeds 1-0?  Coventry beating Spurs 3-2 is one of the great cup finals and then Wimbledon preventing Liverpool winning a double with a Sanchez header to claim the Cup.

The competition it was said also saved Alex Ferguson from being sacked as the Manchester United Manager in 1990.  Mark Robins goal against Nottingham Forest in the third round being credited as the goal that saved him.  You only have to see the picture of Alex Ferguson lovingly cradling the FA cup after United beat Crystal Palace in a replay to see how much it meant to him.  Ironically winning the FA cup was not enough to save Louis Van Gaal’s job as Man Utd manager last season.

It’s hard to see if the FA cup will ever regain its former glory especially as it is seen as the poor relative.  At present money seems to talk but as previously stated the FA has not done enough to protect or promote its competition.

Maybe there will be a time when supporters will demand that their clubs take the FA cup serious and see a good cup run as a distraction from a poor season like it did in the past.  After all nobody dreams of scoring a goal to secure fourth place but of a rocket goal in the last-minute that dramatically wins your club the FA cup.

Brian Benjamin

 

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Author: Brian Benjamin

I love football and will watch any game. Writing is also a passion of mine and apart from writing about football I have also tried my hand at short stories in my spare time.

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