The weekend saw this seasons FA Cup Sixth Round fixtures come and go and has left the nation with the prospect next month of a Manchester derby and a battle between the Trotters and the Potters. The 2010/11 FA Cup campaign has taken place against a backdrop of yet more murmurings in the media about the death of the competition and outline plans of tinkering by the FA to keep the appeal of the oldest Cup tournament in the World.
For me the reasons for the change in perspective of the FA Cup lay across the football community. The FA itself is complicit in damaging the competition in a number of ways. Firstly, there was the decision to allow Manchester United to opt out of the 1999/2000 FA Cup to take part in the revamped World Club Competition. This decision was part of the political gamble by the FA at the time, as they tried to sway FIFA in awarding England the hosting of the 2006 World Cup. And we all know how that worked out. Secondly, there was the ruling to have ties settled after a single replay (excluding the Semi-Final and Final itself). Personally, a major part of the glamour and thrill of the Cup was the odd occasions when a particular tie within a round went to a number of replays. As a Fulham fan I remember vividly the 1974/75 Cup run when we played Hull City three times to get through the Third Round and Nottingham Forest an incredible four times to make it through the Fourth Round. However, those Fulham fixtures were nothing compared to the record breaking fixture in 1971/72. Alvechurch played Oxford City in the 4th Qualifying Round. It required six games before Alvechurch emerged 1-0 winners. Sadly epic battles like that are a thing of the past. Thirdly, because of the burden of rebuilding Wembley Stadium, Semi-Finals now take place at the famous ground. This in my opinion also works to devalue the competition as the act of making it to Wembley and the Final are cheapened. Reaching a Final should be special. Certainly for me in 1975 seeing Fulham in the Final (despite defeat) was and is a treasured memory.
UEFA too has played its part in destabilising the FA Cup. How you may ask have this done this? Well quite simply by the reorganising of their own competitions. Once the 1999 winners Lazio had left Villa Park after defeating Mallorca with the trophy, the European Cup Winners Cup (ECWC) disappeared from view and with it the European prize for the FA Cup winners. Now we have the winners going into the poor relation of the bloated greedy cousin that is the Champions League – the Europa League. For me, if we had a return to the European Cup, the ECWC and UEFA Cup things would be a lot better. Quite simply, the European Cup should be for clubs who have won their domestic League. The Cup Winners Cup for domestic Cup Winners and UEFA Cup either domestic League Runners-Up or in England’s case the winners of the League Cup. This way there are only three European places up for grabs in each country. It would mean that there isn’t the importance placed on the Premier League and the scramble to finish in the “top four” and that both the FA and League Cup would be must win competitions if clubs had intentions of playing in Europe.
However, it doesn’t do away the fact that teams could still place more importance on League survival than the domestic Cup competitions. This is where Sky, the Premier League and implicitly clubs must take some of the blame, since the money involved in being part of that elite group means Chairman and their Boards want Premier League survival delivered as the first priority. So far you could be reading this article thinking what an “old fart”, what a “stick-in-the-mud traditionalist”. Well just to show that I can be a little radical, what about this idea? For the teams reaching the Finals of the League and FA Cup, award the finalists 6 bonus points which are added to their respective League totals? Surely that would be an incentive for clubs to put out full strength teams in the Cup competitions?
Finally are fans excused from being to blame for the troubles with the FA Cup? Well, I believe that fans have been taken in by certain sections of the written media telling us that the competition is on its last legs. Fans also react in terms of attendance according to how seriously their clubs treat the Cup competitions. TV has brought more football into our homes, but does stop people going to the ground as does the shifting of kick off times to all hours and days of the week. Perhaps only the FA Cup Final should be shown “live” and all other Rounds only as highlights? The trouble is that the whole relationship between television, broadcasting rights, clubs and money has taken us down a path which only goes in one direction.
What’s wrong with tradition and history? To me nothing, but the reality is that my views would be seen as nostalgic, unrealistic and naïve by the “powers-that-be”. I fear for the FA Cup and truly hope that it is not watered down even further by those in charge. As fans all we can do in the future is get out and support the FA Cup. It isn’t as special as it was, because the things that made it special are slowly being taken away.