Heading into another FA Cup weekend the phrase: “Magic of the Cup” will be brandished about in an attempt to repackage nostalgia as relevancy. The sad truth is that the oldest domestic club competition is looking its age. Bold steps need to be taken to save the tournament becoming no different than the League Cup, or worse, a Premier League club’s equivalent of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.
The irony is, those two lesser cups have the answers that could help alleviate some of the pressure bearing down on the FA Cup. In How to Make the FA Cup Great Again the notion of making the fourth Champions League place available to the winners was put forward. That’s less likely to occur now than at any point previously.
The FA Cup now needs to accept its place on the priorities and level of importance list that clubs attach to it. Failure to do this will make it nothing more than an annoyance, that witnesses weakened sides take to the field as clubs rest key players for bigger games.
The quickest way to appease the larger teams is the removal of replays. Should Manchester City, a team still in all four competitions, draw with Chelsea on Sunday, they will have to find a week that has eight days to host the replay.
Manuel Pellegrini has already hinted that a weakened City side will face the Londoners, after being upset his team play so close to a long trip to play Dynamo Kiev. This is slightly cheeky considering last season the Citizens travelled to the UAE for a game only days before their FA Cup tie with Middlesbrough. When it suited the club, travelling was played down. Suddenly it’s important again.
What it does highlight is how the FA Cup is seen as a burden. It sits behind the league and European competition, and at this point in City’s season, less important than the League Cup final. The dread of a replay only further takes away any shine for the club’s management.
Making FA Cup ties one time affairs reduces the fixture congestion. It will also ensure each game is played with the true spirit of a knock-out cup game. At the moment smaller teams hang on for a lucrative payday back at a big ground rather than throw caution to the wind. This enables pampered teams to negotiate the tricky lower league pitches with a degree of danger removed.
But even teams in the lower leagues would prefer to avoid a replay rather than extend a “cup run” that, in all likelihood, won’t get them anywhere near Wembley. Survival is more pressing than chasing empty dreams.
Such is the fear of injuries and fatigue, clubs will consider dropping large numbers of the first team for FA Cup ties, the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy offers a great example of how to help clubs avoid both these problems. After 90 minutes the game should go straight to penalties.
Why give the home team the advantage of another 30 minutes on familiar soil? Save the legs and get straight to the shootout. It’s another way to increase the excitement levels and encourage maverick tactics in normal time.
Traditionalists will feel uncomfortable with the suggestion that FA Cup fixtures could be moved to midweek. At first glance, it does seem like a drastic measure. A further undermining of a flogged dead horse. However, there may be some credit to the idea.
Tuesday and Wednesday games haven’t harmed the Champions League. Perhaps the FA Cup could ride on the coattails of UEFA’s success with a competition and populate otherwise vacant midweeks with something meaningful. The only major concern – aside from losing a familiar (often bemoaned) weekend showcase – is how it will impact working class fans that have to travel on a work night.
The FA needs to consider changes like this. It’s sold its own cup down the river so many times in recent years (starting with the 1999 winners, Manchester United, withdrawing from the following season’s competition to compete in the World Club Cup) and devaluing it ever since. To carry on in the same format is consigning it to death.
No matter how many times the BBC say “The Magic of the Cup” this weekend, the truth is, this once great competition has become a footballing tragedy.