A Cup half empty
As thrilling as last weekend's FA Cup matches were, it'll take more than pitch invasions and the absence of the Big Four to restore the magic of the cup.
Football traditions wax and wane. Wooden rattles and bobble hats are out. Jester hats and Jeff Stelling are in. One new tradition to have emerged in the past 10 years is the annual bout of ‘things ain’t what they used to be’ handwringing over the demise of the FA Cup.
Until last weekend, that is. In two topsy-turvy days the FA Cup delivered three cup shocks. As a result, this year’s semi-finals will feature none of the big four clubs and only one representative from the top flight – Portsmouth. The last time that the semis featured three teams from outside the top flight was in 1908.
All week there’s been a notable mood of elation amongst football fans. The ABU brigade (Anyone But United, in case you were wondering) who’d become Pompey fans for the day were cheering. Admittedly, Middlesborough are nobody’s idea of a Goliath but few expected Cardiff to win so comfortably. For me, however, the highlight of the weekend was Barnsley’s 1-0 win over Chelsea. It wasn’t just the spectacle of the cup holders being humbled by a team from the lower reaches of the Championship. Whisper it, but I really enjoyed the pitch invasion at the end. It was just like the good old days. I loved the sheer chaotic unruliness of it all. Fans running onto the pitch before and after the final whistle. Players being mobbed. Now that’s what I call FA cup magic.
You’d think the Football Association would have been be delighted that its flagship cup competition was still capable of generating such public euphoria, wouldn’t you? But instead I read that the killjoys at Soho Square are considering punishing Barnsley for stewarding failures. Sadly, pitch invasions are largely a thing of the past. Running onto the pitch ‘without lawful authority’ is a criminal offence thanks to the 1991 Football Offences Act. The problem with the law is that it fails to distinguish between a riot and a celebration. I hope the FA sees common sense over this good natured incursion but I’m not holding my breath.
Saturday’s quarter-final cup upsets have certainly put a smile on everyone’s faces – well everyone apart from the millions of armchair fans who are only interested in the big clubs, but you get my drift. ‘Giant killers give FA Cup magic back to fans,’ declared the Telegraph. On Monday morning Radio Five Live debated the question: ‘Is this the best FA Cup ever?’ However, just as previous reports of the FA Cup’s demise may have been premature, are we in danger of going too far the other way? Are we a little too hasty in proclaiming the Lazarus-like resurrection of the Cup?
A more realistic assessment of the relative value of the FA Cup was delivered by West Brom manager Tony Mowbray after his team’s 5-1 win over Bristol Rovers. ‘We’re delighted to be in the semi-final, we’re delighted for our fans but we are trying to get out of a tough division and get into the next one up’, said Mowbray. ‘You could see last night by the way we applied ourselves that it means a lot to the players and it’s important for the football club and supporters. But I’m pretty sure if you took a poll they would all be rather playing in the Premier League week in, week out.’
The reality is that, even after last weekend’s thrills and spills, the FA Cup is no longer the glittering prize that it once was. The big clubs would like to win it – Fergie wouldn’t have been purple with rage after Saturday’s game if he wasn’t bothered about winning – but their priorities lie elsewhere: Winning the Premier League or the Champions League or, failing that, securing a Champions League spot, are more important to the top teams. Even for teams in the lower half of the table it is Premiership survival that comes first and the road to Wembley second. ‘We’re not going to win the FA Cup and I don’t care about it, to be honest’, said Reading striker Dave Kitson earlier this year. ‘I care about staying in the Premier League, as does everybody at this club.’
And, as Tony Mowbray’s comments illustrate, even Championship clubs prioritise promotion over cup glory. This year I went to see Palace’s third round tie at Vicarage Road only to find that the Palace line-up was full of spotty adolescents. Invariably we got out-muscled by a full-strength Watford team and lost 2-0. I wasn’t exactly overjoyed. If I’d known that half the youth team would be playing I might not have wasted my Saturday afternoon. But, nor was I devastated that we’d lost. It was only the FA Cup after all.
So, like it or not the cup has lost its lustre. Paradoxically, the big clubs are blamed for devaluing the tournament by fielding weakened teams and simultaneously accused of devaluing the tournament by dominating it. But the reality is that fielding second string teams is a symptom, not a cause, of the diminished value of the FA Cup. Managers opt to rest key players for cup ties because the league or Europe is a higher priority. But while the cup has become devalued that does not mean it is now completely valueless. Most of us still enjoy watching Chelsea or United getting dumped out of the cup because of good, honest Schadenfreude. Equally, for supporters of smaller clubs, a cup draw against a top Premier League club is still a big thing.
Much as we enjoy giant killing, were too many giants culled last weekend? The romance of the cup is all very well when it’s Barnsley toppling Liverpool or Chelsea. But, how many of us are licking our lips at the prospect of an all Championship final? A similar thing happened in the 2002 World Cup finals. Everyone cheered as the giants were slain but ultimately it deprived the tournament of the titanic head-to-heads which are what the World Cup should be all about.
Actually, to tell the truth, I’m not bothered whether the FA Cup Final is an all-Championship affair or not. I certainly don’t go along with those who are saying that this year’s FA Cup has been a great advert for Championship football. ‘The champagne football might be in the Premier League, but if you want really exciting competition the Championship takes some beating’, gushed Chris Kamara in the Sun (1). True, the Championship might be exciting but that’s only because it’s a much more level playing field than the Premiership not because of the quality of football. In short, all teams are equally crap.
A showcase FA Cup final between two second-tier teams might have novelty value but it won’t bring about a more equitable distribution of broadcasting revenue. And that is what Championship clubs desperately need. Ultimately, I’m ambivalent about who plays in the final because I’m ambivalent about the FA Cup itself. A trip to the new Wembley will be a nice day out for the fans but the tournament no longer matters as much as it used to. And it will take far more than a couple of cup upsets to restore its diminished lustre.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist.
(1) Championship is best in world, The Sun, 11 March 2008