The FA Cup: where has all the magic gone?

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Whether it be Jermaine Beckford’s breakaway goal for then-League One Leeds against Manchester United in 2010, or Bradford’s dismantling of Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, the FA Cup has provided many shocking twists in its glorious past.

These are just some of the fantastic moments in the competition’s rich history, but it seems like, in recent years, the magic has vanished. Why is this once-heralded competition no longer treated with the respect it demanded from clubs of yesteryear?

English football in the 21st century is very much dictated by the powers that be in the form of television companies. The never-ending battle between Sky Sports and BT Sport over rights for the Premier League has given rise to a surge in riches for all top division sides just for taking part each year. 

Huddersfield Town earned as much money for finishing bottom of the Premier League in the 2018-19 season than half of the teams in Spain’s La Liga. Financial power is everything in the modern game, and only a few anomalies (like Leicester or Ajax) can have success without spending excessive amounts of money.

Just to keep this income flowing in, teams now put all their resources into surviving in the Premier League, meaning cup competitions find themselves at the back of managers’ minds. Increasing the number of matches in the fixture list brings an inevitable risk of injury to the squad, something which managers are desperate to avoid for league success. 

It is also worth noting the ultimate prize for winning the FA Cup: a place in the Europa League, not exactly everyone’s favourite competition. Clubs strive to evade the less popular Thursday night fixtures that disrupt their week in an attempt to attain Champions League glory. If the FA Cup had a brighter light at the end of the tunnel, surely clubs would feel more inclined to take it seriously. 

On the topic of frustrating schedules, the fact that many clubs join the FA Cup in the middle of the January transfer window, straight after the busiest period of the football calendar over Christmas and New Year, means that clubs are forced to put out weakened sides. Add on the possibility of a replay in the event of a draw, and the fixture list becomes even more congested. If the competition were to feature at the end or beginning of the season, people would be more likely to take it seriously. 

This means rotated sides in almost every game featuring a Premier League side. Just look at Liverpool’s tie against Everton in the third round. Despite being a Merseyside derby, dear in the hearts of their supporters, Liverpool fielded a much-weakened side against the Toffees. This is something you’d expect in a tie involving a Premier League giant and a lower league minnow, not two top division sides. Liverpool’s desire for success in the Premier League undermined their role in the FA Cup, yet they still came out on top. 

The fact that people have to pay for Premier League coverage, while the FA Cup is broadcast by the BBC, is perhaps another reason for lower viewership. People will more likely tune in to a Premier League game knowing that they’ve paid to watch it, while people wouldn’t actively seek out an FA Cup third round tie.

The emergence of the Champions League in the early 2000s could also be considered a factor in the FA Cup’s demise. Now that it has become more available to many teams, the experience of an FA Cup tie pales in comparison to the thrill of a Champions League tie against a European giant. Of course, it costs more to support on the road, but everyone wants to see their side play the best sides possible. 

Even so, the FA Cup fourth round tie between Arsenal and Manchester United last year was the most watched match of the 2018-19 season. Clearly there is still some interest in the competition, and, with the right attention, it could thrive like the days of old.

There is still a sense of magic in the air when the third round rolls around in January, giving teams a break from the usual league action. The magic is still there, hidden by the current cloud of negativity surrounding the competition. It is just up to us to look for it. 

Image: Ken Fitzpatrick via Flickr

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