Offside, 3 May

The FA Cup has lost its lustre. So what?

Duleep Allirajah

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I won’t be watching the FA Cup final this year because I’ll be at my friend’s wedding.

Will I be huddled at the back of the church listening to the game on a radio? To be honest, no I won’t – and what’s more, it doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

It wasn’t ever thus. There was a time when getting married on the day of the final was unthinkable. ‘What kind of man would let his fiancée book the church for Cup final day, Ron?’ ‘No prizes for guessing who wears the trousers in that relationship, Clive.’

As a child growing up in the 1970s, the Cup final was a magical occasion to me. The pre-match build-up on TV ran for hours. It wasn’t exactly cutting-edge broadcasting but curios like Cup final It’s a Knockout added to the sense of occasion. The Cup final was quite simply the most important date in the British sporting calendar.

But during the 1980s the magic of the Cup started to wane. Ricky Villa’s mazy dribble through the Manchester City defence to score the winning goal for Spurs in 1981 is etched in my memory, but that’s about all. The last Cup final that really seemed to matter was Crystal Palace’s 3-3 draw against Manchester United in 1990. Mark Hughes’ equaliser eight minutes from the end of extra time continues to haunt me. Even more galling is the realisation 12 years on that, if Palace ever win the Cup, it won’t mean as much as it used to.

So why has the FA Cup lost its lustre? The Observer‘s Ian Ridley blames the FA for allowing the Cup final to be ‘relegated to a role of diluted prelude to the last week of the Premiership season’ (1). Ridley’s solution is to award the fourth Champions League berth to the FA Cup winner. Ironically, this would simply confirm the diminished status of a tournament that was once the most cherished prize in English football. If the Cup still mattered, it wouldn’t require the artificial incentive of being turned into a back door to Europe.

Stefan Szymanski, an academic at Imperial College Management School, blames the widening wealth gap between the big clubs and the rest, which has led to a decline in giant-killing. Szymanski has calculated that Cup upsets averaged two a year between 1988 and 1998, compared to four a year between 1977 and 1987 (2). True, there might be fewer upsets, but more significant is the fact that giant-killing itself is devalued when the top teams like Manchester United field reserve teams for Cup ties.

Manchester United were widely criticised for diminishing the FA Cup by withdrawing from the competition to play in the inaugural World Club Championship in January 2000. The big clubs have also been accused of being more interested in qualifying for the lucrative Champions League than winning the FA Cup. Clearly, the Premiership title and the Champions League are now the main priorities for the top English clubs. But the FA Cup ceased to matter long before the Premiership or the Champions League came into existence.

As far back as 1993 the football magazine When Saturday Comes ran an article by Roger Titford on the decline of the FA Cup (3). According to Titford the ‘modern heyday’ of the Cup final ‘lasted from the advent of mass TV and radio coverage in the 1950s until the mid/late 1970s’. The Cup final owed its special status to the fact that it was one of the few football matches to be shown live on TV. As soon as ITV started broadcasting live league games in 1983 the Cup final lost its unique appeal.

And maybe that was no bad thing. The British public, deprived of televised football for years, treated the Cup final with undue reverence. Now that we can gorge ourselves on live football we are able to view the Cup in perspective, as an occasionally exciting distraction from the true measure of success – winning the Premier league.

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