Saturday, 8 January 2011

Revitalising the FA Cup

An interesting piece over at The Guardian and it poses an interesting question: How do we make the FA Cup matter? This is, of course, an annual question. We all say earnest things''the game needs a strong cup competition' but we can't really ever say why that is the case. It is almost impossible for any such article not to mention ''the magic of the FA Cup'' - there I've done it and got it out the way.

Why do we even care?

 So why do we care about the cup? A large part of it is nostalgia. The FA Cup has thrown up moments that define football for generations and, in many ways, it is the FA Cup and not the league that provides the narrative of football history.

This is because the FA Cup throws up moments. These may be great finals, one-off spectaculars, giant-killings or particular goals. These stick in the memory far more clearly than the relentless excellence of league champions.

Many of the defining moments of English footballing history for fans come from the FA Cup. The biggest clubs - the clubs that have dominated the higher echelons of the league for decades - have had their famous moments.

Arsenal fans cherish the image of Charlie George lying down in celebration in the 1971 final, Liverpool fans will never forget Gerrard's cartoonish blast against West Ham, Spurs dwell on Villa's meandering run and Manchester United will long remember their 3-3 cracker against Crystal Palace (which, of course, they went on to win at a replay). Fans of different eras will focus on different moments.

It isn't just the largest clubs that can enjoy the FA Cup. The smaller clubs - the clubs who will never challenge for any other sort of silverware - get a day at the races or a night at the opera. On that blissful weekend - indeed, this blissful weekend - a non-league team of amateurs can take on the best team in the land in a straight 90 minute scrap. The third round of the Cup is a hair of the dog for the football fan who has over-indulged during the Festive Period.

For all the teary-eyed nonsense about the romance of the cup, even the most flinty of hearts must enjoy the spectacle of a team of amateurs walking out at the Emirates, Old Trafford or Villa Park. I'll make the joke about amateurs walking out at Old Trafford tomorrow before anyone else does.

It also allows smaller clubs a moment in the sun. Sutton United beating Coventry, Mansfield beating West Ham (then full of World Cup winners!), Hereford knocking out Newcastle are the classics that are churned out on cheap Christmas video after cheap Christmas DVD. However, Burton Albion, Kidderminster, Woking, Havant and Waterlooville, Wrexham and Bristol City have all caused major shocks or had managers of big clubs groping furiously for the Pepto Bismol over the last two decades.

The FA Cup and me

For me, the games that crystallised the importance of the FA Cup were all in the late 1980s and 1990s and, perhaps obviously, mostly involve Liverpool. The years between 1988 and 1992 were the years I became besotted with football. It is perhaps understandable that the standout moments from that time are from the FA Cup.

The 1988 FA Cup Final where, arguably the greatest Liverpool team in history, conspired not to win the Double and Lawrie Sanchez's Wimbledon entered footballing folklore. The following year, a few weeks after the heartbreak of Hillsborough, the all-Merseyside final produced a corker of a final with Liverpool beating Everton 3-2.

The 1990 FA Cup was wonderful for many reasons. Seven months after pumping Crystal Palace 9-0, lLiverpool lost a see-saw semi-final 4-3. The other semi-final between Manchester United and second division Oldham Athletic was a 3-3 classic (where, perhaps unsurprisingly, Oldham were robbed of a goal that had clearly crossed the line) and United went on to win the replay 2-1 with an extra-time wonder-volley from Mark Hughes. 
The 1990 was 3-3 classic mentioned above (and, many argue, the only reason Sir Alex Ferguson kept his job...)

In 1991, the semi-final between Arsenal and Spurs will be remembered for Gazza's 35 yard free-kick against Arsenal. (Arsenal fans... don't click on the link!)

The final, a nuggety sort of game, saw Gascoigne effectively end his career (or, at least, write off his ability to fulful his potential) with a wild lunge on Gary Charles effectively.

Readers of different vintages will remember other moments from their childhood when they were falling in love with football. The Cup bewitches and beguiles: It is the lover. The League is a wife.

    These are the reasons why I think the Cup matters.

    Increased competition

    Soon after someone says ''the game needs a strong cup competition'' attention turns to what can be done. And herein lies a problem... for a generation brought up on the 24-hour glamour of the Premier League and the season-long fun of the Champions League, it is increasingly difficult for the FA Cup to excite. This is made doubly-hard when the winnings are so comparatively meagre. Managers begin to consider as a third-rate competition or as a distraction. The top teams in the Premiership don't want to bother, the mid-ranking teams are either gunning for an elusive Europa League spot so their fans can experience the fun of going to some club they've never heard of in Eastern Europe or are petrified about being dragged into the relegation battle and the basement teams are focusing on survival.

    As so many in the game hold romantic feelings towards the Cup any number of radical suggestions are put forward. I always feel a little queasy with this - too much change or too radical surgery, will turn the competition into an fairground freakshow ('let's introduce a new rule here or a new rule there', 'next season, we can play with a glow in the dark ball' etc).

    If surgery must come (and maybe it must) it should be small-scale. A touch-up here or touch-up there rather than an overhaul. We must not allow an over-jealous policy officer at the FA loose with the scalpel and chloroform.

    So what could be done without disfiguring the old dear?

    Champions League place for the winner

    The beauty of this move is that it doesn't change the nature of the competition. It merely changes the level of incentives. It would make the competition more attractive for clubs, for fans and for sponsors.

    More money for the winner

    Want debt-ridden super-clubs to take the competition seriously? Make the Cup worth winning. Again, whilst it might feel ever so slightly vulgar - it doesn't change the Cup.

    Scrap replays

    One of the reasons that so many clubs don't take the Cup as seriously as previously is because the nature of replays adds seriously to fixture congestion. If we want clubs to take the Cup seriously, this may be a useful way forward (even if smaller teams won't like it...)

    Choosing grounds

    A slightly more radical suggestion. If replays are to be scrapped, in any tie where clubs are in different divisions the club in the lower of the two divisions should be able to choose where the tie is played: they can go for the money (Burton Albion could move their tie to Old Trafford) or they could get the big boys to come to them. All too often smaller clubs are furious when they pull a Premier League team out of the hat - only to get a home-tie.

    The sanctity of the Cup should be preserved

    The Semi-Final weekend should not clash with League Ties and the FA Cup Final should not clash with anything. If they are evening fixtures, fine but the idea that league games can go on at the same time as the semi-finals takes away from the specialness of the Cup.

    Just some ideas - I'm sure plenty of readers will have other thoughts. As ever, I'd love to hear them.



    twistedblood said...

    Nice piece.

    I've always been a fan of the Champions-League-place-for-the-winner idea.

    Presumably, if the winner also qualified through the league, then you'd have the beaten finalist. And if they had also qualified, maybe a playoff between the beaten semi-finalists?

    So over the last ten years, that'd be something like this lot going into the CL (in reverse order): Portsmouth, Everton, Watford/Blackburn, West Ham, Newcastle/Blackburn, Millwall, Southampton, Fulham/Middlesboro, Spurs/Wycombe.

    Which would have been *brilliant*.

    John A said...

    I think earning a champions league place wouldn't work in all honesty. UEFA wouldn't be too happy at the potential of a 'smaller team' with poorer infrastructure than that of the big boys entering the competition. Not to mention that it would mean taking away the 4th place entry as it currently stands to accommodate this, so rather than having a team that has proved they are worthy of the place, through their achievements throughout the season, you may have a team that has happened upon a fortunate draw and found themselves either in the final (Cardiff, Millwall) or perhaps even won the cup (Pompey). And they wouldn't have a cat in hells chance of qualifying for the actual competition.

    Michael said...

    More pricing initiatives to get people into grounds who can't usually afford it might help with all those empty seats at Premier League and Championship grounds. Tickets down to £5 instead of the tenner off you more commonly get now.

    Plus, rules to stop smaller clubs putting up their prices. Stevenage charged £30 today. I know it's an opportunity to make some cash, but their tickets are expensive enough to start with (£18) and the game was on TV.

    Full grounds makes for a better atmosphere makes for a better competition.

    Dominic Pollard said...

    Good post, Rob. As you say, it is FA Cup third round weekend so these debates are to be expected and I think they need to happen - the Cup has lost some of its 'magic' in the Premiership years. I wrote last year about the need to scrap replays so I am glad you have touched upon that. Replays, for me, contradict the nature of a cup competition being an exciting, one-off, winner-takes-it-all contest. That is why we get such dramatic games and great moments in the FA Cup and thus the more games that can't be settled as a draw but instead end with both sides going all out for the win or in extra-time and penalties the better. Like John, I am not sure offering a Champions League place is fair or realistic but I think Micheal's idea of reduced prices would help revamp the tournament. I think, if logistically possible, including Scottish teams would be a good idea. Would help add a different dimension and maybe increase interest and revenue?

    Martin Perring said...

    How about a play off between 4th and the cup winner? Im a bit unsure about such a radical change but it seems like a sensible soloution. Sky would love it. The play off alone would generate a fair bit of money.

    Rob Marrs said...

    Thanks for all the comments - as ever!

    Dominic - agreed.

    Martin - nice idea. Why not introduce a Battle of Britain? Scottish FA Cup winners against English FA Cup winners! Sky would love it, it would help fill the FA's coffers and fans would be well up for it (I reckon).


    Rob Marrs said...

    Dominic - just saw your point re: Scotland.

    I've long been in favour of integrating the league cups. East Fife vs Manchester United.

    Also keen (if Anglo-Scottish League Cup is impossible) to see the League Cup be either (a) Under 23 only (b) UK nationals only. Slightly out-there suggestions but it would give the cup a point...


    dearieme said...

    Make them play it tied together, as in a three-legged race.

    Karl | footysphere said...

    I love the FA Cup. A 3rd round game against Arsenal was my first visit to Bramall Lane as a lad. Since then I've been hooked on the romance of the FA Cup. My lifetime wish is to see Utd play in the final. Come close a few times, seen us lose in the semi-finals three times now.

    But it's clear that the competition is losing it's magic. You only have to look at the attendances for 3rd round games over the last few seasons to see that fans are choosing to give what was once a major date in the footballing calendar a miss.

    What can be done to spice things up? For me it's not about places in the Champions League for the winners or play-off games against Scottish sides it's all about the cost.

    Simply put football is too expensive these days and extra cup games, especially just after christmas, are an expense many feel they can't justify. Especially given that EPL clubs & now increasingly FLC clubs are putting cup ambitions on the side to concentrate on the league then why should the fans hand over their hard-earned when the clubs can't be bothered.

    I don't think the FA would ever sanction prices as low as a fiver, in their oak-panelled alternate reality they'd probably think the low prices would devalue the sanctity of the competition. But when clubs clearly don't give the cup respect then the FA will surely have to bite the bullet to ensure that people are going through the turnstiles to watch it.

    Not so sure including Scottish clubs would work. Would the FA want Scottish clubs in the mix, the Scottish FA for sure wouldn't be happy and given that the Anglo-Scottish Cup was stopped because no bugger turned out for the games it's all a bit of a non-starter.

    Damon said...

    Controversially, maybe, I don't think the FA Cup needs changing and, if anything, this weekend has proved it. There has been quite an outpouring on Twitter, on blog sites and even in the mainstream media about the results that have occurred.

    As a national competition it can no longer quench what is now a global media thirst in the way a Champions League can and bigger teams will always take it more lightly.

    Some other teams choose to play weaker sides if they think their league is more important and that is their choice.

    Pragmatism among managers is rife because their tenure is so short and winning one cup match won't save them from the sack if league form is bad. It is not the FA Cup that is devalued or in trouble, it is managers that are devalued and until the attitude towards them changes, they will continue to be pragmatic and certain tournaments will take precedent.

    The FA Cup means different things at different levels. Three or four teams know they can win it, a dozen more know they have a chance of doing well, loads know a 4th or 5th Round is good and some set their sights on a 1st Round berth.

    You have to look beyond the obvious rounds to see what it means to teams who don't have a chance to win the Old Jug. Last year, Lowestoft's highest half dozen attendances were in the FA Cup, try telling them the FA Cup needs revamping.

    I'd leave the FA Cup as it is, introduce a managerial 'transfer window' alongside the players' one and give managers some time so they might have more of a go at getting through the FA Cup (and indeed League Cup).

    There, I've said it.

    Rob Marrs said...

    That's all very well, Damon.

    Stevenage, yesterday, had a great result. They were also charging £30 for the privilege to watch them (up from their usual £18). Now, in hindsight, that is great value but in reality clubs must stop treating the cup as a cashcow. My understanding is that attendances - generally - for FA Cup ties are falling?

    All that said, I presume you agree with :

    (a) semi-final day not clashing with league fixtures

    (b) replays being scrapped. One of the reasons that managers are ''pragmatic'' is because they are petrified of replays impacting on their season.

    I don't think the Cup is irrevocably harmed by replays and I think moving to a one-game shoot-out actually helps make it more exciting.


    Rob Marrs said...

    Re: Scottish Clubs.

    I don't really want them in FA Cup - I'd like a Cup Winners Cup between English and Scottish Cup Final winners. I don't see any harm in that?

    When it comes to the League Cup, I just don't see the point of it any more.


    Damon said...

    Stevenage should be ashamed of themselves (it happened at Harrow Boro v Chesterfield too, a point I challenged the club on and got no response, of course) but stopping that will have very little impact on the revitalisation of the cup itself.

    It should also be noted that as many, if not more, clubs have done the opposite and charged less.

    On your points:

    (a) I don't disagree, although I am not entirely sure it makes a lot of difference, given they are often on TV when there are no other games on.

    (b) I'm torn on this issue. The contrarian in me loves the old 4th replay idea. I like the purity of a game being played until someone wins it. I'm not a fan of penalty shoot outs either and you have to wonder if teams will play for those, which won't endear people to the Cup.

    Though I can see the logic and practicality of no replays.

    I'm ambivalent on these two issues but I don't think changing either will help the tournament any more than stasis.

    I do believe that fundamental sea change in attitudes to managers will change not only attitudes to the FA Cup but also to football as a whole.

    Martin Perring said...

    good idea Rob, but would UEFA alow it? Would that mean that mean England or Scotland lose a Champ League spot?

    As for the Carling Cup, which is only a mickey mouse cup for teams that regularly win cups. Leave it as it is, its a great chance for the lesser teams to win something. As a Tottenham fan, now I dont view it as an important compation, but when we won it I was estatic

    As for cheaper tickets why not charge less for child tickets, get familys to come along. This would not make the FA cup anymore important but might help with attendence.

    miki said...

    Very good article.

    It's difficult to see what motivation a Premier League club has for competing in the FA cup nowadays. The top clubs are mostly concerned with getting that Champions League spot, the bottom clubs are mostly concerned with fighting relegation and most of the clubs in the middle could go either way. Most clubs are financially strained, there's a lot of pressure to succeed and fixture congestion only makes it worse.

    This season has been close unlike any I remember (those with better memories correct me if I'm wrong), and a poor run of results could easy push one of the teams that are relatively safe in mid-table dangerously towards relegation zone, or put a front runner out of the race. With the fixture list being congested as it is, relegation, winning the title, and qualifying for Europe could be decided by a couple of points at the end of the season, maybe even goal difference.

    It's no wonder that for most managers playing their first XI in a Cup game is not a wise gamble. Extra tiredness or having one of your players pick up an injury could very well turn out to be the deciding factor at the end of the season, and the risk is quite simply not worth the potential gain.

    I agree that eliminating replays would be a step in the right direction, but I'm afraid that it's just going to slow the decline, not stop it.