Every year you need only look at the back pages of every tabloid newspaper or turn on any TV sports channel to find yourself at the centre of the debate that continues to rage on every third round weekend each January – has the FA Cup lost its magic? This year tabloids and pundits alike have reopened the annual discussion that never seems to go away by pointing firstly to both Jurgen Klopp and Eddie Howe’s decisions to rotate almost all of their starting XI’s as the clearest piece of evidence to suggest that Premier League clubs are not taking the competition as seriously as they may have done so in the past and they simply use it as an opportunity to rotate their squads by using up substitutes and reserve players for such fixtures.
Meanwhile beneath the surface, if you dig a little deeper there is scope to suggest that a series of lower attendances for FA Cup fixtures last weekend further supports the growing supposition that the competition simply isn’t what it used to be. Most notably demonstrated through the likes of Hull City only attracting 6,608 spectators for their third round clash with Swansea City and Sunderland only managing to pull in an FA Cup attendance of 17,632 compared to an average of 40,000 during the Premier League season. This too is of course is not helped whatsoever by comments made by Cardiff City manager Neil Warnock who recently spoke of the FA Cup following his side’s 2-1 home defeat by Fulham stating that “struggled to get out of bed” and that he ‘wasn’t really excited at the prospect of playing’ them last weekend – seemingly opting to focus more on league success rather than any type of FA Cup run this season.
But whilst the Premier League may well be the competition that lower league clubs one day dream of competing in as they struggle to balance their books and settle scores both on and off the pitch, the progress and the rewards of the FA Cup can be equally as satisfying for fans of lower league opposition. As much as those involved in marketing the Premier League to a worldwide audience may not like to admit, the FA Cup as well as still maintaining a certain prestige to this very day remains an important part of the footballing season. And as difficult as it may be for managers to justify fielding a full strength team and in the process consequently tiring out a title-challenging or relegation battling squad in the process, for me the success of the English top flight is largely helped rather than hindered by cup competitions such as the FA Cup. Away from the select few that are capable of muscling it at the highest level, for the good of English football as a wider phenomenon the FA Cup should not only be respected but more s viewed with the same importance as domestic league and other European competitions.
As a refreshing diversion from a clubs regular fixture list, with it the FA Cup opens up several corners of the country that a lower league clubs fan base may never have had the opportunity to visit through early round FA Cup fixtures. Whether it be a clash of local rivals that have been separated for some time due to their league standings or even a fallen giant pitting their wits against a relatively unknown non league opposition, the unpredictability of both the draw as well as what to expect on the pitch is what makes the FA Cup all the more interesting. Likewise alongside the obvious financial benefits that stem through the competition as a consequence of progressing through round by round of the cup, lower-league fans can meanwhile begin to dream about a glamour fixture against a team of a significantly higher standing, a potential giant killing in the next round or even just a big day out and away day that serves to bring a clubs fanbase closer together.
Similarly a commitment is made for life when aligning yourself with a football team from infancy, whether that be by force through a family tradition or just a genuine decision made as a young football supporter. But for fans of a younger generation brought up in a FIFA and Football Manager age, watching your team come up against some of the finest players in the English top flight may always, and in some ways understandably be the dream. Yet season upon season in the competition, if a lower league team is determined enough to grant the competition the respect it most certainly deserves and can somehow defy all odds and reach the third round proper, then even if it is just for ninety minutes and one weekend in January, a club devoid of any real top flight expectation can make what may have always seemed an unfathomable pipe dream turn into something of a reality. This is what makes the FA Cup all the more magical. As for football fans of a certain generation old enough to remember some of the most memorable FA Cup matches which to this day are still shown in pre-match coverage or following a surprising cup upset, the FA Cup is still viewed with the same esteem that it was two or three decades ago. Preserving such a reputation among real football fans young and old is therefore vital and it truly is to the BBC’s credit in recent years, that through their continued and often lengthy coverage of the competition they have helped breathe new life into one of the most traditional tournaments in world football.
Currently England unfortunately finds itself trailing Germany and Spain in the important UEFA coefficient chart ranking a country’s footballing achievements. In comparison to equivalent cup competitions in both countries, England too has ultimately had its fare share of ‘typical’ winners, often one of five or six teams competing at the top of the Premier League runs out eventual winners in the cup. Yet admittedly English teams however do tend to approach such a cup competition much differently to their European counterparts with a greater and perhaps more traditional emphasis from lower league clubs to get one over the so called ‘big boys’ is arguably still present today. Away from the FA Cup, clearly shocks and surprises can happen at any time, in any cup competition and anywhere in the world but as a competition itself he FA Cup never fails to deliver a host of thrills and spills each season.
Unless your team is capable of consistently challenging for promotion or for the title at the top of the league each season, battles bravely against relegation year upon hear or even yo-yo’s from one extreme to the other, league football for many can be both somewhat monotonous and maybe even meaningless. Mid-table mediocrity for the likes of Aston Villa, Portsmouth and Wigan Athletic would have been a realistic and even challenging target to reach during their time in the Premier League but as I am sure their club’s fans will tell you, a cup run can sometimes be just what is needed for a club financially if not also a boost for the squad to perform at such a high level in the league as well as a day out Wembley which at least brings some joy to loyal fans in what may be a predictable league campaign. Needless to say the delight an FA Cup run can bring to non-league teams, most notably when securing a second or third round clash against a well renowned club side many a semi-professional player could only ever have dreamed of facing during his part-time footballing career.
Evidently there are however understandable reasons for fans of lower league teams to feel aggrieved with the competition in its current format and the way in which it progresses. Whether it be a questionable price hike in ticket prices after drawing a club two or three divisions above a lower tier, an unfair allocation of prize money after reaching a certain round meaning that lower league clubs rely heavily on drawing a ‘big team’ at home for the revenue it will generate more so than for the occasion itself or perhaps even just the way that matches involving non-league teams who deserve the right to have television coverage are often avoided in favour of a clash between two Premier League clubs; clearly football fans have every reason to feel so downhearted and disinterested in the FA Cup. But what should be remembered above all is that such grievances must lie solely with the media and also with the tournament’s organisers behind the scenes with both in many ways culpable for these problems.
The FA Cup’s history, tradition and format meanwhile remain the same and fondly looked upon as it ever has been. Therefore if the English football association are quickly able to rectify the few flaws that it the competition may have at present then there’s no questioning the tournament’s integrity and rightful place in the modern English football season. So love it or loathe it, praise or disrespect it all you like but for the good of the future of the English game let us make sure they we don’t lose it. The FA Cup and the top flight of English football always seemed to a matchmade in heaven and hopefully always will be, albeit with a few minor tweaks.