For years now we’ve been subjected relentlessly to the indubitably accepted cannon opinion that the FA Cup is in a near constant process of de-magicafying. Every turn of year we’re compelled to hope that the world’s oldest cup competition can regain some of it’s old magic in an age of pan-European glamour where domestic cup competitions have become as relevant as funny foreign accents and blacking up in casually xenophobic 1970s sitcoms. Romance is dead, apparently. Except of course when it’s not. Which oddly seems to be every year.
In response to this often spouted supposed truth, and always more than willing to put themselves forward as an institution of ridicule, the FA used it’s most recent summit meeting to discuss, moot and propose the idea of revamping the competition with the advent of seeding and – with the wholehearted approval of Sir Alex Ferguson (always willing to set aside self interest in the pursuit of fairness) scrapping replays. Even theorized during this meeting was the possibility of regionalization, with the pots split into North and South for the early rounds in much the same way the Conference was in 2004.
But all this nonsense misses the point. There’s nothing wrong with the FA Cup, and never has been. The “magic” is still there, just as much as it ever was. More so in fact if you consider the ever increasing gap between the top flight and the rest to be acting as a sort of inflation. Already in the past week we’ve seen Arsenal held by Leyton Orient and Manchester United bested for long periods and lucky to prevail against lowly Crawley Town, a team managed by a man who looks like Den Perry from Phoenix Nights in drag and whose past financial dealings make Harry Redknapp look like the Chancellor the Exchequer. In the last three years we’ve seen United knocked out by Leeds, Liverpool fall behind twice at home to Havant & Waterlooville, and lose to Barnsley, who also went on to knock out Chelsea. Lists of the Top 10 FA Cup shocks invariably contain more modern wonders than the famous hagiographed tales of old, but none of that seems to slow the tide of opinion. The magic is ebbing away, somehow, somewhere. Possibly.
This week the holders Chelsea were knocked out on their own patch, and with a draw that pits the two remaining favorites against each other, the final is guaranteed to include a team who finished outside of the top four last season. Which would hardly be a rare occurrence, or indeed anything to jump up and down about considering a final between two big four sides has only transpired twice in the last eight years, with teams from below the top flight reaching that stage more times in that period (twice) than they had in the previous 20 years.
Only eight teams have ever won it outside of the top flight and five of them were pre-war. On the occasion a final is contested by two unglamorous sides the event is usually decried as romantic but uninteresting. When it’s a showpiece final between top teams (already shown to be a relative rarity) it’s just apparent of the rise in the power of the big teams and another crushing blow to the romance of the cup. It’s hard to imagine what these naysayers want, aside form a return to a glorified sepia past where every underdog apparently beat every big team every time with last minute winners from on loan substitute goal keepers.
Yes, the trophy has been won by just five teams in the last 15 years, Portsmouth included, but the winners in the 15 years previous numbered only seven. Hardly a massive stretch. The big teams are just as likely to succeed or fall, the only difference is that those teams aren’t as often in flux as they once were (though in this particular season even that statement seems mildly antiquated.)
The only problem with the FA Cup is the Champions League. The rise in it’s global and domestic prominence has nudged the FA Cup off of its perch as the second most coveted trophy in English football. In fact in some quarters it’s even nudged the League down too. When the European Cup was the sole preserve of the Champions, especially during the 86-91 European ban and the subsequent period of foreign player restrictions, the FA Cup was a highly prized opportunity of silverware for the great and the good of English football. When the Champions League scrapped it’s foreign player rules and expanded to include a maximum of four teams, ostensibly stealing the attentions of these great and good, the FA Cup was the competition that suffered most.
But nothing is wrong with the competition itself, and nothing is going to diminish the importance of the Champions League in the foreseeable future. Certainly not messing with the format of the oldest and most famous domestic cup competition in the world.
This is the problem the FA faces, and any attempt to manufacture magic isn’t going to help it one bit. On the contrary, scrapping replays will significantly diminish it, cutting the achievement of clubs like Leyton Orient down to size. If the Os were forced to play on into Extra-Time on Sunday night they would’ve most likely lost, been deprived of their subsequent celebrations, headlines and hero status, not to mention their trip to Vegas. With seeding the FA would be essentially attempting to manufacture an All-star final, keeping the Manchester Uniteds and Liverpools away from each other in the 3rd round and halting the likelihood of a Cardiff or a Portsmouth or a Millwall reaching Wembley through a favorable draw. Both are disastrous ideas that fly in the face of everything the FA Cup is all about. We already have iTV doing their level best to devalue it with appalling coverage, there’s no need for the organisers to try and make it worse. Oi, FA, No!