The ‘magic of the cup’ is just an illusion
Even Championship teams - and their supporters - are more interested in joining the big boys, not just beating them.
Did you respect the FA Cup last weekend? Go on, admit it. Don’t be ashamed.
Listen, I’ll fess up first. I seriously considered giving Crystal Palace v Stoke the swerve. I nearly went shopping instead. Look, I needed some new socks and, well, it was only the FA Cup. In the end, I went to the game. Not because I’m still in thrall to magic of the Cup. Nor that I wanted to tell my grandchildren that I’d seen Michael Owen when he was a has-been. And certainly not because I felt guilty about violating the commandment: ‘Thou shalt respect the FA Cup’. No, it was simply because the chance to yell ‘freak’ at Peter Crouch was marginally more enticing than traipsing around M&S in Croydon. And, to be honest, it was a very close call.
Third-round weekend has turned into an annual inquest into the demise of this once-great institution. Every year, there’s the same predictable whodunnit: Who killed our beloved FA Cup? Each year, the usual suspects are paraded in the dock. Firstly, there are the clubs who field second-string teams. Premiership clubs have been resting their star players for years. Now even Championship clubs are fielding weakened line-ups because the league is a higher priority. After Cardiff’s defeat to Macclesfield, Malky Mackay was unrepentant about his decision to rest pretty much his entire first 11. ‘We had five or six knocks for various people’, explained the Bluebirds’ manager. ‘Our first-team squad has played four games in 10 days, which is exceptional I suppose. So they’ve had a chance to recover from their bumps and bruises and be back for the Ipswich game.’
Then there are the stayaway fans. Thousands of Palace regulars chose not to go to the Stoke game last Saturday. Although ticket prices had been reduced, there were only 13,693 spectators at Selhurst Park, nearly three thousand fewer than the average league gate. Indeed, some fans were unhappy that Ian Holloway hadn’t rested Palace starlet Wilfried Zaha. Clearly, the romance of the Cup no longer resonates with these supporters. And it’s not just Palace fans. Throughout the country there were swathes of empty seats as fans voted with their feet. Simon Kuper and Stefan Symanski have even devised a way of scientifically measuring the tendency of FA Cup magic to decline. In their Freakonomics-inspired book, Why England Lose: And Other Curious Phenomena Explained, they argued that declining public interest in the FA Cup is a historical trend that dates back to the mid-1990s. The authors compared attendances in Cup ties involving clubs in the same division with their corresponding league fixtures. They found that FA Cup attendances were higher than league games up to the 1994-95 season - arguably this uplift is a measure of Cup magic. However, after 1994-95, Cup games drew lower crowds than the equivalent league fixture.
Of course, none of this number crunching proves conclusively that lack of respect on the part of supporters is to blame. That would be to confuse cause with symptoms. Fans are simply taking their cue from the clubs, which clearly no longer take the competition as seriously as in the past. Many argue that the Football Association itself is the main culprit. It was the FA blazers who persuaded Manchester United to withdraw from the competition in 2000 in the vain hope that participation in the FIFA World Club Championship would boost their bid to host the World Cup. It was the FA who started staging semi-finals at Wembley, thus diminishing the mystique of the traditional Cup Final venue. And, last season, it was the FA who moved the Cup Final kick-off from 3pm to 5.15pm to accommodate Premier League fixtures which, for the first time ever, were scheduled on the same day. But, while the FA has tinkered with tradition, this alone can’t explain the declining value of the tournament. The traditional Saturday 3pm kick off is a thing of the past, particularly for clubs in the Champions League, but that hasn’t dampened interest in the Premier League.
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The annual FA Cup whodunnit is misconceived on two counts. Firstly, I’d argue that nobody really plotted the downfall of the FA Cup. It’s just that the Cup was unwittingly trampled underfoot in the Premier League gold rush. Clubs, managers, players and fans all desperately want to be in the Barclays-sponsored Promised Land. As a consequence, the FA Cup has lost some of its lustre. Not all of it mind. The Cup has been devalued but that doesn’t mean it’s completely worthless. In a refreshing departure from the usual nostalgia-drenched articles bemoaning the Cup’s diminished status, the Guardian’s Sean Ingle explained that the tournament is in better health than most people think. ‘[W]hile the FA Cup has suffered a painful dent or two, often due to mistreatment by its careless owner, what’s surprising when you dig into the archives is how little it has changed’, he wrote. If you look at the statistics, Ingle argues, you will see that Cup attendances have remained relatively stable over the past 30 years, as have the instances of giant-killing.
Much of the Cup’s magic resided in the thrill of seeing big-name players come to lower league clubs or huddling around the TV to watch the only live televised football match of the year. Now, with saturation TV coverage, we can watch Wayne Rooney or Steven Gerrard every week.
The diminishing magic of the FA Cup in many ways mirrors the decline of the travelling circus. The circus started to lose its magic in the 1950s as new leisure activities, such as television, became accessible to ordinary people. In the same way, the FA Cup has suffered because, thanks to televised football, our horizons have widened. Where once listening to the FA Cup third-round draw on a crackly radio was a highlight of the sporting calendar, now it’s a big Champions League game, a Super Sunday title decider or the latest instalment of El Clásico on a Sunday evening.
We haven’t lost all respect for the Cup. We’ve just outgrown it. As with the travelling circus, we’re no longer awestruck when the FA Cup comes to town.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.
spiked issue: Sport
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