The FA Cup, the oldest football competition in the world, is in serious need of a modern make-over.
In spite of the BBC’s protestations otherwise, FA Cup weekend – which only really becomes a noteworthy event once the big dogs of the Premier League and the Championship enter the third round in January – is not met with much excitement or anticipation amongst football fans. Rather it is seen as a necessary evil, something which must be endured before the real excitement (in this case, the return of league football) can begin, like going to church on Christmas morning or heading to the local shop to buy some prophylactics.
In a desperate attempt to attract gullible viewers, the same cringe-inducing cliché is churned out every year, namely that the FA Cup possesses some kind of ‘romantic’ charm. This, apparently, is the competition’s unique selling point – with its rich tradition and tendency to produce heartwarming underdog stories, it is unlike any other competition, and should therefore be embraced, cherished, and most importantly, viewed.
Much like a gondola then, the FA Cup is traditional and seeped in romance. This is all well and good for a ride through the canals of Venice with your beau, but in the tough, uncompromising and unsentimental world of modern football, why stick with a quaint wooden boat when you can have a flash, exciting and efficient jetski instead?
It’s time for the FA Cup to get with the times. Poor turnout, added expenses for the fans and the alluring riches of the Premier League and Champions League coming before all else mean that it’s seen as something of a laughing stock compared to the aforementioned competitions, like turning up at the Hôtel de Paris and parking amongst the sleek, sexy Ferraris and Lamborghinis in a battered old Reliant Robin.
Nevertheless, the competition has the potential to join the cool kids of the trophy cabinet with a quick, stylish Trinny and Susannah-style revamp. The most drastic change involves the FA Cup winners facing the Premier League’s fourth placed side in an end-of-season, winner-takes-all crunch match for the last Champions League spot. This will greatly incentivise the value of lifting the trophy, especially for teams such as Manchester United, Everton and Tottenham Hotspur who may find finishing in the top four a challenge. Though this may lead to the slightly absurd scenario of seeing a lower-league team playing at the Bernabeu or the Allianz Arena, a team winning the competition outside the top flight has always been a rare occurrence (with West Ham being the last to do so in 1980). Besides, the likes of Nottingham Forest, Sheffield United and even Bradford City are giants compared to Ludogorets Razgrad of Bulgaria, who find themselves in Liverpool’s group in this year’s competition.
The second alteration is to do away with the pointless and archaic replays. They may have been the only way to settle a tie in the days before penalty shoot-outs, but since the introduction of the spot-kick lottery into the game, the replay is nothing more than an inconvenience for players, managers and fans. Its impractical retention seems once again linked to the idea of preserving the ‘traditional identity’ of the competition, a futile endeavour considering its diminishing popularity. Extra time followed by a penalty shootout brings instant satisfaction to all involved, including the losers, who would be able to concentrate on their league campaign instead of another ninety minutes against a team they have just played.
Poor turnout can be easily resolved by making all home games in the competition free of charge for season ticket holders, and greatly reduced for those buying regular tickets. Similarly, tickets for away games and games at neutral venues, if a team advances far enough into the competition, should be available at affordable prices, though such a proposal may be a tall order considering the continued reluctance of league clubs to reduce exorbitant ticket prices.
With these three straightforward modifications, we may once again see the FA Cup become a trophy with major clout and appeal, rather than a grand old competition full of romance and tradition, and not much else.