Offside, 18 May
'Now here's a radical idea for you: let's abolish the FA Cup.'
Now here’s a radical idea for you: let’s abolish the FA Cup.
This heretic thought occurred to me as I found myself, not for the first time, failing to get excited about an FA Cup final. I was glad when Michael Owen scored a late winner, but only because it spared me the ordeal of extra time.
Admittedly, the 2001 final had a relatively exciting denouement – unlike last year’s yawnfest, which I abandoned at half time, preferring to assemble an Ikea wardrobe instead.
In the trailer for ITV’s cup final programme, Vinnie Jones makes the rather ludicrous claim that the FA Cup is bigger in Britain than the World Cup. Vinnie – you muppet – if the FA Cup still mattered so much ITV wouldn’t have to employ a celebrity thug to tell us.
I am not alone in believing that the Cup has lost its lustre. Football academic Stefan Szymanski has found that FA Cup attendances are now lower than for corresponding league fixtures (1). Szymanski blames the increasing wealth divide between clubs which has led to a falling rate of giant-killing – there are now just two cup upsets on average a year, compared to four in the 1970s and 80s.
I don’t go along with this explanation. The problem is not that there are too few cup upsets, but that the prize no longer matters.
Players now regard the Cup as little more than a consolation prize. This sentiment was summed up by Patrick Vieira, who said: ‘We need to win it…because we have to win something. But we don’t believe we have achieved what we had hoped for this season.’
Michael Owen’s immediate reaction to winning the trophy was to admit that ‘the Champions’ League was the main aim this season’. Qualification for the Champions’ League, even if it means finishing without a trophy, is now a bigger prize than winning the FA Cup.
But surely the Cup still retains its magic for giant-killers like Wycombe, who knocked out Premiership Leicester to reach the semi-finals in 2001? Well yes, the competition is still capable of producing moments of drama. But when the likes of Manchester United field a reserve team in cup-ties, as they have done in recent years, it diminishes the competition for everybody else. Giant-killing is devalued when Goliath no longer takes the contest seriously.
The Football Association is considering awarding the third Champions’ League place to the FA Cup winners in an attempt to breathe new life into the tournament. While this might force top clubs to take the competition more seriously it does nothing to revive the magic of the Cup.
Winning the Cup used to be seen as an end in itself – a prize on a par with the league title. The FA’s proposal would effectively reduce the Cup to a preliminary round of the Champions’ League – in other words, a slightly more upmarket version of the Inter-Toto Cup.
The Europeans have never taken their domestic cup competitions seriously – winning the league was rightly seen as a greater measure of success. Britain has lagged behind. But perhaps we are finally starting to see the wisdom of the Continental point of view.
First Division play-off finals are often far more exciting than the Cup finals, because promotion to the Premiership is what really matters today. The FA Cup, on the other hand, is chronically sick. It’s about time we put it out of its misery.
(1) Wealth of top clubs ‘damages FA Cup’, Michael Durham, Independent, 18 February 2001
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