Has the FA Cup Really Lost Its Magic?
The 3rd Round of the FA Cup kicks off tonight when West Ham host Manchester City at the shiny London Stadium, bringing with it every cliché written under the pen about ‘levellers’. But while competitions like the Premier League and the Champions League have gone from strength to strength, bathing in the riches lavished on them by record-breaking TV deals and staggering sponsorships, many punters say the FA Cup has lost its magic. But what is this wizardry it so famously provided? And can it ever be recaptured?
The FA Cup is no longer the great institution of English football it once was. Just ask your dad. Or even your dog. Everyone knows. In fairness, rather than being a calculated money-over-tradition ploy to piss everyone off, the FA Cup’s obvious regression from pinnacle of the English football calendar to aperitif for the Champions League Final a week later has been more an inevitable sign of the times. Football is big business. And with the Premier League offering the regularity and the Champions League offering the quality, the FA Cup was always going to be left behind.
That said, there’s still some ways in which the Magic of the Cup™ can be salvaged and, crucially, not buried even more so. It’s all very well the BBC, ITV and BT Sport telling you how brilliant the cup is, but very rarely do they demonstrate that belief in their coverage or, most importantly, in their scheduling.
Let’s take this weekend, for example. Manchester United will take on Reading in what will be the club’s 55th consecutive FA Cup game shown live on TV. FIFTY FIFTH. For balance, the drawn wasn’t kind to TV companies with little in the way of standout fixtures, and the Jaap Stam effect gives it a story at least. Regardless, 55 games in a row is staggering. Then you consider a tie like Tottenham v Aston Villa has been picked over the local derby between the National League’s Sutton United and League One’s AFC Wimbledon – a club with a rich Cup history themselves. While United fans will turn up their droves and BT Sport 2 will get their ratings, this neutral would rather hang out with his mother-in-law… probably.
Then there’s the fact that the 3rd round (the point where the Premier League and Championship team enter the tournament) falls in the first week of January, straight after the majority of clubs have played four or five league games in less than two weeks over the busiest period in the footballing calendar. Nothing says ‘REST YOUR PLAYERS’ more than Peterborough at Home after a gruelling month with 2 games in 3 days now a normality. Resting players then becomes less about not caring about the Cup and more a necessity. This only adds to the anticlimactic feeling around the top clubs.
The obvious carrot to make managers think twice about resting players is the often mentioned Champions League spot for the tournament’s winner. It all depends on which way you look at it; does a team who wins 6 games against lower league opposition deserve a place among Europe’s elite more than a team who proves their worth over 38 games against the country’s best? Clearly probably not. But it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy for the FA and if they want the Cup to have the gravitas they clearly feel it deserves, it may be the only option.
Then we come to the most easily-achievable-but-will-never-happen plaster needed to repair the Cup’s Magic® wound – STOP PLAYING SEMI FINALS AT WEMBLEY. Reaching the FA Cup final gives you not only one but TWO trips to Wembley’s hallowed walkway! But why? Because the FA needs to pay off its massive Wembley Stadium-sized debt, that’s why. The FA will claim it gives teams more chance to have a day out at Wembley. But the more chances you have to make it, the less sacred it becomes, surely?
It also doesn’t matter to them that professional athletes have to wait an extra 10 minutes for kick off while Tinie Tempah finishes performing ‘Girls Like’, as Palace and United players had to in 2016. Nor does it matter to them if Wigan fans have to leave at 5am to make an unsurprisingly un-sold out game against Millwall, as was the case in 2013. And it certainly doesn’t matter to them if trains aren’t running for United fans when the full time whistle blows in their Semi Final against Everton, just like last year. But they do ensure we have Hard-Fi or Jess Glynne. And ultimately that’s what the people want before the biggest game of their season/lifetime. God forbid an atmosphere breaks out spontaneously.
But we can’t be too down on the FA Cup. Whatever that magic was, we still think it probably is. It’s just been diluted and harder to find. Recent winners have included the likes of Portsmouth and Wigan. Wigan – a team consisting of Emerson Boyce, Paul Scharner and Roger Espinoza actually won the thing. While Aston Villa, Hull and Cardiff have all made final appearances in the last decade. Saying the magic has fully gone because Liverpool, City and Arsenal played their youth against Shrewsbury would be a disrespect to the brilliance the FA Cup can still provide further down the football league. You just maybe need to search a little harder for it. Sutton United’s Borough Sports Ground 3pm this Saturday would be a good place to start…