Let’s face it. It used to be the proudest prize in English football. Nowadays, I think I’d be more entertained watching Roy Hodgson try to sing ‘Rocky Robin’ than following the F.A. Cup. Admittedly, I’m a United fan (please carry on reading), and there may be some bitterness in this article if you look closely enough, but I seriously believe that a reformatting of this historic trophy is needed to give it back the status it deserves.
Don’t furiously hammer a comment of protest into the keyboard just yet. I enjoyed thoroughly Portsmouth v Southampton, Stoke v Man City, Leeds v Tottenham and Aston Villa v Crystal Palace, and I imagine some people enjoyed watching Man United crash out in the third round. This competition will always provide upsets, good matches and drama.
However, as we move into a new age of football, marked by the financial theatrics at Portsmouth, West Ham and Man United, it’s clear that both fans and clubs have relegated the F.A. Cup to a lowly priority. This year’s third round saw an average attendance of 18,023 people, which is pretty high, but this is deceptive. Massive attendances at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge boosted this figure massively, and overall figures since the first round were down on last year. Several top clubs including Wigan and Sheffield United suffered record low attendances.
The clubs, too, lost a lot of interest. Weakened team selections and apathetic performances mean that only three of the top ten Premiership clubs are in the last eight. No football fan can honestly say that they’re more excited about who wins this ‘major trophy’ than they are about who will go down, who will qualify for Europe, and who will stop Liverpool from getting into the Champions league. Steve Coppell summed up the new attitude to the Cup as manager of Reading in 2008. When asked about his team’s premature exit from the F.A. Cup, he replied “I’ve got 17 more cup finals this season.” When it comes down to it, managers can’t afford to regard this trophy as anything more than a jolly day out to distract their players from the harsh world of the Premier League.
So what can be done to change things? The English F.A. are looking into a few ways of upping the prestige of their eponymous trophy. Personally, I think the European incentive has failed, and so giving a Champions League place to the winners is excessive and would only serve to devalue and corrupt the English game.
There are many possibilities being discussed to potentially improve the situation, but only two of these seem sensible. Firstly: the abolition of replays. Only then would managers have the confidence to play stronger teams, more likely to get a result. There would be more excitement on match days, and no irritating backlog of Premier League fixtures to catch up on. Secondly, to increase the possibility of ‘giant-killings’ while at the same time keeping big clubs interested, the third and fourth round should be seeded. If Championship and Premiership clubs were kept apart then there would be more chance of lucrative revenue for smaller clubs from the competition.
These are only ideas, still very much embryonic, but most importantly it would appear that the F.A. have recognised the need to protect the value of the most famous up competition in the world; now all that remains to be done is practical action.