Much Tehoue about nothing - What exactly is wrong with the FA Cup?
The clamour to “revitalise” the FA Cup first appeared to gather pace back in 2000 when Manchester United withdrew in order to compete in the World Club Championships. Although this subsided during the middle of the decade, there now seem to be more calls than ever for change to be applied to the FA Cup.
One argument is that the Champions League is viewed as being so important by England’s elite clubs that the FA Cup takes a backseat and that this is unacceptable. A possible solution, and one often proposed by the same people that put this argument forward, is to remove the fourth Champions League qualifying spot from the Premier League and award it instead to the winners of the FA Cup.
This, surely, is muddled logic and would be counterproductive for the English game. The likes of Manchester United and Arsenal would still be confident of finishing in the top three remaining qualifying positions in the league and any effect on their team selections would be minimal. By raising the importance of the FA Cup, there would be a detrimental effect on the competitive nature of the Premier League and teams outside of the current top seven, to be generous, would find it almost impossible to break into that top three.
Complaints this weekend have centred around the selections of Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger. These complaints overlook the incredibly strong Manchester City lineup that Roberto Mancini put out to face Notts County in their Fourth Round replay. And, lest we forget, no matter how close Crawley Town came or whether Leyton Orient managed to wrestle a replay out of their tie with Arsenal, the overwhelming likelihood is that Ferguson and Wenger will lock horns in the Quarter Finals.
More importantly, they will do so without having to risk the vast majority of their key players against lowly opposition. If a second-string Manchester United side struggle to put away a non-league team, it says more about the likes of Gabriel Obertan – and anyone involved in arranging his signature at Old Trafford – than the FA Cup.
Were Crawley fans complaining about the relative lack of star quality on show on their big day out? And if so, why? The fewer of the big boys’ first-team players to pull on a shirt on FA Cup day, the greater opportunity that a lower league side will pull off an upset. There were not many Northampton Town supporters bothered about the strength of Liverpool’s lineup after the Cobblers triumphed at Anfield in the League Cup earlier this season. Football is not about seeing the best players in the world in the flesh. It is about winning, and the feeling that follows.
Let us address the murmur of grumbles from Manchester United fans that Ferguson’s team selection was not worth the £41 that many paid for the privilege of seeing a 1-0 win over a Conference outfit. The words “murmur” and “grumbles” would certainly be substituted for far stronger equivalents if a player like Nemanja Vidic or Paul Scholes had started the game and been injured.
Rotation is a fact of life these days. If Ferguson cannot heavily rotate his squad for the visit of Crawley Town, when can he do it? And, as disappointing as they have been so far in their Manchester United careers, the likes of Bebe and Obertan have more chance of improving through first-team appearances than by permanent consignment to the reserves. Some were initially unimpressed by Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani…
Where else do complainants look for evidence of the disintegrating “magic” of the FA Cup? Magic, by the way, being a horrible cliche of a word that sets unnecessarily lofty expectations every time it is used without a tongue firmly in cheek. They look to Wigan, and sparse crowds for an FA Cup tie against Bolton. Here is some news. Wigan do not have many fans at the best of times. And an FA Cup tie against a club in the same division rarely provides any set of supporters with any semblance of sparkle.
Another bug-bear is the popular statement that a replay is “the last thing” the manager of any given Premier League giant wants. What a ludicrous turn of phrase. If it were true, why not field the weakest team possible, thus eliminating any chance of a dreaded extra fixture in the calendar? Or at least field that kind of side in the ensuing replay?
Where agreement can be found is in the concept of the FA Cup Final not being what it once was, but there are very few answers floating around that would solve this problem – short of guaranteeing a sunny day on a particular May afternoon, an exciting fixture between two teams that play attractive football and bestowing decades of history upon the new Wembley Stadium in an instant.
When it comes down it, though, there is not an awful lot wrong with the FA Cup. The crux of the issue is this: beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If you do not hold the FA Cup in the same regard that you once did, you need to turn a mirror on yourself.
Is it because you are more concerned with the Champions League, re-branded from the old European Cup? Or the Premier League, re-branded from the old First Division? Or any of the three divisions of the Football League, which have each been re-branded twice in recent history in an effort to raise their profile?
UEFA’s decision to extend the premier European cup competition at club level should not necessitate a change to be made to the FA Cup. In fact, there is no good reason for footballing tradition to be compromised in the dubious name of progress. Any changes made will inevitably be in the interests of the loudest voices at the biggest clubs.
Perhaps most pressingly of all, do you trust the Football Association? That any change they make will definitely be for the better?