It has become traditional at this time of year for anyone who comments upon, writes about, or simply watches English football to express a view on the world’s oldest cup competition, the FA Cup, and whether it has lost its ‘magic’?
There are essentially two schools of thought at play: either that the Premier League long ago surpassed the FA Cup in terms of media profile, importance and priority amongst clubs both competing in the richest league in the world and those striving to get into it; or that there is still a place for the Cup and its unique ability to pit the elite clubs against those from the lower divisions, or indeed non-League, on pitches and at grounds that level the playing field both metaphorically and quite often literally.
Any football fan of a certain vintage will remember the shocks of years gone by, of the special moments that made us all believe that anything was truly possible in football: of Ronnie Radford of Hereford United humbling Newcastle, of holders Coventry City being turned over by non-League Sutton United a mere matter of months after they had shocked Tottenham in the Final, of “the Crazy Gang beating the Culture Club” at Wembley as Motty so eloquently put it, and as hard as us Gooners try to forget it lowly Wrexham knocking out reigning Football League Champions Arsenal in the Third Round, to name just those at the very forefront of my memory.
Even just two seasons ago we saw non-League Sutton United and Lincoln City reach the Fifth Round and Quarter Finals respectively before both being eliminated by eventual winners Arsenal. The main point of consternation seems to be that the FA Cup has reduced in importance with every Premier League participant, and a significant proportion of those from the Championship, turning out reserve sides as they rest players ahead of higher priority matches to come.
Just this last Sunday we saw Liverpool send a virtual shadow squad, the only recognised first team squad members who started the game being: reserve goalkeeper Adrian, the returning from injury Fabinho, back-up frontman Divock Origi and new signing Takumi Minamino; to take on League One Shrewsbury.
Despite establishing a 2-0 lead, the Reds were pinned back by second half goals from Jason Cummings and now face a replay at Anfield next week, for which manager Jürgen Klopp has insisted that he will not play any of his first team squad and will let Under-23 manager, Neil Critchley, take charge of the side, stating categorically: “We intend to honour the original idea of the break. We have respect for the players’ welfare and they need this time off. We got a letter from the authorities in April last year asking us not to organise anything during the week of the break and we haven’t. We have given the players the time off, and some are going away”.
While Klopp has rather inevitably faced a barrage of criticism for taking such a stand, what he was referring to in his explanation is the introduction this season of a token mid-season break, which rather than see a complete shutdown will instead have one round of fixtures split across two weeks, which will apparently prove to be: “a valuable addition [to allow players] appropriate recovery time and have the positive impact on individual and team performance.”
At the time that this initiative was announced the powers-that-be at the Premier League, EFL and Football Association warned clubs against using the time off to play lucrative friendlies, stating categorially: “Clubs are expected to honour and respect the underlining rationale for the Mid-Season Player Break, namely to provide their players with a break from the physical and mental rigours of playing matches during the season…Clubs should not arrange competitive or friendly matches with other clubs during the Mid-Season Player Break.” A noble directive I am sure you will agree, until you realise that Liverpool, Newcastle, Tottenham and Southampton will all be expected to play their FA Cup Fourth Round Replays, wait for it… during the mid-season break, genius!
To further compound matters the Fifth Round ties this year, which are likely to feature up to half of the Premier League’s teams, will take place in midweek with a full round of Premier League fixtures the weekend before and the weekend after. Are we now finally seeing the intention of converting the FA Cup into a midweek competition akin to the League Cup? Surely if it was that important to the FA they would address the fixture congestion madness that happens over the Festive Period to create room for the cup games?
Every season a whole range of suggestions are put forward as to how the FA Cup can be given greater priority, including: scheduling the Third Round at an earlier stage of the season not immediately after the most hectic period of the season; biting the bullet and making the League Cup a competition for Football League clubs only; getting rid of replays; offering a Champions League place to the winner; and/ or automatically giving a home tie to teams from the lower divisions and non-league; amongst a whole series of other options.
However until the Football Association themselves show any level of commitment, or even an evident desire to want to restore the FA Cup to its former glory, it will remain what it is: a secondary competition for the big boys with the priority remaining the Premier League and Europe. Or maybe we should accept, like with so many other things, that life and football move on and evolve.