This last weekend the fourth round of the FA Cup provided us with some amazing stories, including having two non-League teams in the last sixteen for the first time ever, a total of six upsets, potentially seven if Derby can find a way past Leicester in the one replay next week; so the magic of the FA Cup would seem to be alive and well.. or is it?
One of the major talking points this weekend has been the number of changes made by teams from different divisions resulting in weakened teams competing in a whole host of the fourth road ties. The game I attended promised on paper to be an interesting tussle between Premier Leagues sides with Arsenal’s trip to Southampton; yet both teams opted for significant changes, nine for Southampton and ten for Arsenal; in the end Arsenal’s much more experienced second choice team easily saw off Southampton’s and while it was enjoyable as an Arsenal fan it lacked any of the buzz of a real cup tie.
It came as little surprise that the vast majority of Premier League teams opted for weakened teams as this is something that we have grown accustomed to over recent years; however the amount of Championship teams that did so as well was even more concerning. Both Brighton and Newcastle exited the cup on Saturday having made nine changes to their first choice sides; and Leeds United followed suit on Sunday having made ten changes; giving as clear an indication as possible that their priorities lie with the pursuit of promotion and the riches available in the Premier League.
Most baffling and amazing of all was Wolves’ decision to make seven changes, despite being nowhere near potential promotion, but still somehow emerging victorious from their trip to Anfield.
There has been much venting of frustration of how all these changes have devalued the world’s oldest football competition; Henry Winter of the Times suggested that ‘Many headlines celebrating FA Cup feats over the weekend but the number of weakened teams undeniably damages the competition’; while Oliver Holt of The Mail on Sunday noted ‘It’s not a giant-killing because it’s a team of kids and reserves. Let’s just be honest about what FA Cup has become.’ I have to admit the upsets haven’t registered with the same impact with me, in the way that they used to in the old days.
The cold hard truth is that the money available in the Premier League necessitates that the League programme has to be prioritised, even for Championship teams striving to join the party. Falling a mere two days ahead of a full programme of Premier League and Championship fixtures, the FA Cup Fourth Round was always going to be at risk; it is hard to argue against teams prioritising the league with the much greater financial rewards available, yet at the same time it is perfectly valid to be sad at the way things have turned out.
It has been suggested for a number of years that the FA Cup has been losing its magic, but this year it feels that things may be even worse than that and that the competition is increasingly being seen as a distraction, an inconvenience, with a status approaching something akin to the EFL Cup.
A number of proposals have been put forward about how the prestige of the FA Cup could be restored; for me the only way to truly do so would be to significantly increase the prize money and to award a Champions League place to the winners. However trying to convince the Premier League elite and UEFA to turn over one of the places to the winners of a mere cup competition, with the inherent risk that an under-qualified team gets it or that the elite (read richest!) clubs use it as a safety net for getting into the Champions League when their form over the entire campaign has in no way merited it, would seem to be an especially tough sell. In many ways the avaricious nature of the top clubs in this country has not only devalued the FA Cup but provides the main obstacle for its prestige ever being restored.