The third round of this season’s FA Cup brought a pleasant surprise; top flight teams facing lower division teams didn’t disrespectfully shove out a team full of reserves and youngsters. The “magic of the cup” is often marvelled about – despite how rarely it happens – but the magic is lessened by the fact that big clubs refuse to put their first teams out against teams they consider weaker than themselves and when a shock result happens it’s often due to the weakened state of the team. This season has been different because Premiership teams have put out a team core of first team regulars and just put a handful of squad players or youngsters into the team to rest a few names. The problem for us then? A lack of shocks, with the clash at Old Trafford being the exception.
Leeds’ victory at Old Trafford will be celebrated as a victory of the underdogs but it is devalued by the fact that United did not use their first team. Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov aside, United’s squad did not contain any players who would be regulars if their team was fully fit. Then again, Leeds were facing a team consisting mainly of international players who would be expected to beat the League One side. Leeds result is a great triumph and one they’ll remember for a long time but it is not as glorious as it could’ve been – Leeds would’ve loved to have beaten the likes of former Elland Road boy Rio Ferdinand and the evergreen Ryan Giggs. Their victory possessed the magic of the cup but would they have not preferred to have stunned United’s first team?
The problem is that the FA Cup is no longer as big a prize as it was – league positions are now considered more important than England’s oldest cup competition and teams are happy to put out weakened teams and be eliminated to avoid being fatigued for their league run in. I vividly recall Steve Coppell declaring, when he was in charge of Reading, that the FA Cup was irrelevant to him and he’d readily put a second string team out. This is happening often, with the League and Champion’s League taking preference. What will the FA Cup give you? Financial benefits and a place in the Europa League? Apparently that’s not good enough any more.
Of course there are those who do value it and the cup is usually won by a big team which means that some are interested in the competition – Chelsea, for example, usually put out a team consisting mainly of first team regulars. However their big rivals cannot have the same said of them – United, Arsenal and Liverpool all put out players who would not play a part in a regular league match unless injuries had forced their being in the team. Yes it increases the chance of an upset but it also denies us the chance to see these smaller teams taking on the best of the best; instead they face the reserves of the best.
This year’s third round has seen stronger teams from most Premiership sides than it usually does but the chances are that some clubs will decide as the season progresses that the cup isn’t worth interfering with their league form for and will allow themselves to drop out of it. The FA Cup simply does not hold the appeal it did before to any club in the Premiership with something to fight for and it is a shame that domestic cups are regarded so lowly. The FA Cup is not the only one, Spanish teams treat their cup like we treat the League Cup – but the FA Cup? It’s meant to be special. The smaller teams can still get their special days but the FA Cup is certainly not the important piece of silverware it was.