As I sat watching Match of the Day’s run through of all the day’s FA Cup 3rd Round games on Saturday night, despite the fact there had been some shock results with Millwall, Wolves and Derby County all ousting Premier League opposition; it just didn’t feel the same as I remembered it. The megabucks available in the Premier League have served to inflate Premier League survival as being way more important than an FA Cup run for clubs in this modern era. The case in point being Bournemouth, who made 11 changes from the team that played Arsenal earlier in the week; while I am sure that Eddie Howe and his team will be disappointed to have exited the competition, if they go on to secure a top half finish in the Premier League then they will reflect on a successful season.
As a football traditionalist and someone who grew up in the 70’s and 80’s when the FA Cup was a big deal, it is tragic to see how the glorious old tournament has lost its charm. The evolution of the game in Britain means that the entry into the competition of the teams from the top two divisions comes immediately after the ‘survival of the fittest’ challenge that is the festive season; the desire to rest players and get them ready for the next round of league fixtures is clear. As a result if a minnow does manage to upset one of the top teams it is seen within the context of beating a side made up of squad players and youngsters, rather than a ‘true’ surprise. The narrative after Plymouth held on for a draw at Anfield was as much to do with Jurgen Klopp’s decision to play the youngest ever first choice Liverpool side as it was to celebrate the League Two side’s achievement.
Back in the day the FA Cup was the very definition of live football on TV in England but nowadays the televised fixtures are spread across a whole Friday to Monday period with the best games often hidden away on satellite TV with inconvenient kick-off times for travelling supporters.
Up until the turn of the Millennium, when UEFA decided to rejig their competitions in pursuit of the almighty Euro, the FA Cup winners as domestic cup winners gained entry into the European Cup Winners Cup, a tournament that was generally regarded with fondness as a result of the random combination of sides that were in it, but nevertheless was seen as a competition worth winning. These days the FA Cup winners are rewarded with a place in the Europa League, a competition that is often seen as an inconvenience at least in its early stages. While it would be a brave decision, awarding a Champions League place to the FA Cup winners might go some way to re-raising the prestige level of the competition.
The ludicrous decision by the FA to play all semi-finals at Wembley in order to generate revenue to pay for the overly expensive stadium, has further de-valued the competition; as has the switching of the kick-off time to suit foreign TV markets without a thought given to the supporters, and the over-allocation of match tickets to corporate sponsors and affiliated governing bodies.
In many ways it is just another impact of the evolution of the game and the ever-growing greed for wealth that characterises its modern incarnation; however to me it just highlights yet another way in which the spirit and essence of the sport that we love has been eroded. The famous old cup has gone from being a magical competition that captured the imagination of football fans the world over; to being treated with as little prestige as the League Cup, or whatever it is called this season.