When this season’s FA Cup reached its third round stage, I gave a friend of mine a hypothetical ultimatum. As a supporter of a newly-promoted Premier League club, I asked whether he would prefer his side to win the world’s oldest cup competition but be relegated, or be knocked out courtesy of their lower league opponents and finish the season in 17th position.
He was unequivocal in his answer. He would rather avoid relegation, of course, pragmatically citing the financial benefits of being in the Premier League as his reasoning. Truthfully, he is not wrong, and a glance at Cup attendances this past week, particularly for mid-table top flight sides, suggests he is not the only whose priorities are elsewhere.
This conclusion is not a new observation, but that is the point I’m making. Nothing is being done to help restore its ailing reputation, so everybody is forced to listen to the same recycled argument about the trophy ‘losing its magic’ every year.
And make no mistake, it is. For every Manchester United (reserves) versus Crawley Town, there is a Premier League replay between two teams and supporters who would rather be anywhere else. Take, Wigan Athletic versus Bolton Wanderers last Wednesday for example, where just over 7,000 people turned up at the DW Stadium.
The competition’s history is preventing it being relevant in the present. Even the most liberal football thinker becomes an ardent conservationist when discussing if its format should change. Refusing to do away with replays or play fixtures during the week because ‘it’s not in the spirit of the Cup’ is not helping find a solution, it is only making the problem worse.
The latest idea, voiced publicly by Sir Alex Ferguson, but backed privately by some quarters of the Football Association, is to introduce a seeding system. And if you think about it for a moment, it sort of makes sense.
More heartwarming David v Goliath ties would be contrived, providing a nice hefty payday for whoever David may be. Mid-table top flight clubs, in theory, would be able to navigate themselves through the first few rounds of the trophy without losing focus in the Premier League. Meanwhile, the semi-final and final should be a showpiece event contested between the top sides, something which would delight the FA moneymen. It happens more often than not under the current format anyway.
The only thing missing would be the drama of the FA Cup draw, but consider that collateral damage.
It would be a cynical move, but football has long been that way and perhaps that is what is needed to help revive its fortunes. Predictably though, it has been met with derision and disdain, prompting melodramatic accusations from idealists that if implemented, will ‘finally kill the FA Cup’.
Sadly, I’d argue the world’s oldest cup completion is already dead, and in reality, it will not be magic that brings it back to life.
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