Has the modern FA Cup lost its magic?

By Noel Burke
The not-so-magic FA Cup?

The not-so-magic FA Cup?

“The glory of the Cup … another Cup upset … the FA Cup is just magical … there’s something special about FA Cup weekend … another great cup tie.”

These are just some of the clichés British commentators, analysts and journalists spurn out when that ‘magical’ time of year is upon us again: FA cup weekend. But realistically, does the world’s oldest cup competition still hold any of this romance or sentimental value? Does the modern game no longer have a place for another cup competition?

In a football world now driven by trying to avoid slipping into the red and possible administration, does this competition serve, more as a distraction and a nuisance, for clubs seeking a more financially rewarding aim such as a high league position.

For clubs in the Premier League it no longer holds the importance it once did. Teams competing for the title and Champions League positions now see this the endeavour in their desire to cement themselves as a footballing force. For those at the bottom it is all about surviving relegation and about the £60 million prize at the end of the year. The FA cup is nice in the trophy cabinet but it won’t exactly pay the wages. It is a sad indictment of the footballing world that now exists, where money now reigns supreme.

So, really it is the middle clubs who now hold the FA cup up as a premier competition, those not strong enough to push for Europe, but really too strong to be relegated (or so one would think). Clubs such as Middlesborough, Blackburn Rovers, previously Aston Villa and Manchester City. All clubs that were consistent but never really set the premier league alight. However, over the past few seasons a new trend has begun to emerge in the FA cup and that is of the clubs from midtable in the Championship (formerly the First Division) now pushing for the FA cup.

Clubs that do not have a real chance of promotion and at best, hope for a play-off place now see the FA cup as a chance to taste some success. Cardiff City being the poster boy of these clubs. Steve Coppell has spoken for many years about how uninterested he is in the FA Cup as it interfered with their premier league survival and presently their push for promotion. Alex McLeish also uttered similar musings following his Birmingham City’s exit in the cup at the hand of Wolves, many other championship sides pushing promotion hope that Wolves’ (current championship leaders) involvement in the competition will only serve to harm their league campaign.

So, where does this leave the old glorious FA Cup? Big Clubs treat the competition with contempt more than anything else and its stature in the game has never fully recovered from Manchester United’s withdrawal in 2000.

So, where does this leave the old glorious FA Cup? Well most likely not in a healthy position. Big Clubs treat the competition with contempt more than anything else and its stature in the game has never fully recovered from Manchester United’s withdrawal in 2000. Since then, only last year’s final has not involved one of the “Big Four” clubs and frankly until they semi-final they don’t really seem to care about the competition. It is a competition being destroyed by the big squads of the bigger clubs that are saturated with talent. Even when clubs like Burton can hold Manchester United to a replay, generally speaking big clubs will not get caught out again and the show horses will replace the donkeys, take note Southend.

Also, fringe players will up their over-hyped game and get down to the basics in an attempt to avoid a swift exit from a big club. One suspects that David Moyes with his Everton squad, already stretched to it’s bare bones, would prefer not to have a cup replay to contend with. Yet, if its stature is falling amongst the clubs it certainly isn’t amongst the majority of the fans. When Liverpool exited the competition in 2005 to lowly Burnley, there was widespread uproar, much to the bemusement of a certain Rafael Benitiez. Benitez coming from the continent where the cup competitions are seem as secondary to the league and Europe, he found it hard to comprehend why such a meagre competition was being taken so seriously.

A possible reason for this obsession with the domestic cup competition in England, contrasting that of other major European leagues, is due to the ban on English clubs participating in European competitions following Heysel. Following Heysel, English clubs were banned from participating in 3 cup competitions. English clubs had dominated the European game in the 1980s. So, the chance for players and managers to collect some silverware decreased and as such the FA cup became a vital competition. But, now with the English clubs once again taking a stronghold in the European club game, the F.A. cup is now seen as a distraction, an annoying obligation that is disrupting their other aims. The low prize money on offer for the FA cup when compared to European competitions and high league positions is another reason for the contempt the competition.

Despite this the FA Cup can produce some upsets as seen last weekend with the elimination of current FA Cup holders, Portsmouth, at the hands of lower league opposition Swansea. So, yes the romance of the competition is still alive with results like this and the Aston Villa and Doncaster draw, but one can’t help but feel that this is just papering over the cracks, as when the competition reaches the business end of proceedings, that the men will come out to play and put the boys of the lower leagues into their place.

The enigma of the cup then arises, as much as one can lament at the predictability of the domination of the big clubs in the competition, without their participation they competition is weaker. Last years final and semi-final did not arouse much attention due to the absence of the big clubs in the competition. So, where does the FA cup go from here?

The domination of the big clubs has made it monotonous and predictable, yet without their participation it lacks the allure and finesse that fans want to see. The competition will preserve but its importance will continue to dwindle amongst the important clubs in England. Commentators will still mention the clichés of cup magic etc and there will continue to be David vs. Goliath victory stories but one feels that these stories will not occur against many of the premier league clubs who occupy the top positions.

The other damning fact is that young boys today dream of scoring the winning goal in the Champions League Final, until those of past generations who dreamed of scoring the winning goal in the FA Cup Final at Wembley. Alas, this is the confirmation of the stature of a global game, dominated by TV coverage of the Champions League, as the competition in which English managers and the FA initially refused to participate in (the then European Cup) has replaced their prized cup competition… one word comes to mind to best sum up the issue of the decline in the FA Cup: irony.

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