Thou shalt respect the FA Cup!

Football’s overlords cannot comprehend fans’ lack of interest in the FA Cup. Truth is, we’ve simply outgrown it.

Duleep Allirajah

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‘Who killed the FA Cup?’ This week, football-loving folk throughout the land will be taking part in the now customary handwringing over the demise of this once-hallowed British institution. Some football fans choose to spend FA Cup Third Round weekend on the terraces. But this is a dwindling minority judging by Saturday’s pitiful attendances. The rest of us prefer to argue over who is responsible for killing the world’s oldest football competition.

Of course, there are a handful of deluded souls who refuse to accept that the FA Cup has lost its magic. The TV companies who own the broadcasting rights, for example, are at pains to tell us that the Cup is as lustrous as it ever was. ‘Tell him the Cup no longer matters’, shrieked ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley jubilantly as the camera at Old Trafford focused on a dejected-looking Manchester United fan on Sunday afternoon. But, of course, there is an iron law at work here. The value of the FA Cup diminishes in inverse proportion to the increasing shrillness of Clive Tyldesley’s screams. The louder Clive screams, the more we yawn. It’s a scientific fact.

The Manchester United v Leeds tie, which had a near capacity crowd of 74,526, was one of the few matches to buck the trend of paltry attendances. At many other games the cameraman would have struggled to find a fan, dejected or otherwise, to focus on. The all-Premiership tie between Wigan and Hull attracted just 5,335 spectators. West Ham United took the desperate step of sending begging emails to its season ticket holders urging them ‘fill the stadium to provide the 12th man to support the team’ for third-round tie against Arsenal. ‘It would be fantastic to have your support at this fixture and at what we hope will be the start of the road to Wembley’, pleaded the club.

So, who or what is responsible for the demise of the FA Cup? Is it the big clubs who no longer prioritise the FA Cup? Is it the managers who field second-string teams? Is it Manchester United who started the rot by pulling out of the competition in 2000 to play in FIFA’s inaugural World Club Championship? Is it the fans who stay at home in their thousands? The common theme underlying all these accusations is that the FA Cup is dying because it is starved of respect. The implicit message – ‘Thou must respect the FA Cup’ – has become an unspoken moral imperative. The subtext is that anyone who disses the FA Cup is violating a sacred football tradition. I’m surprised that the FA hasn’t introduced a new offence of ‘disrespecting the Cup’.

Of course the notion that lack of respect is killing the FA Cup is absurdly simplistic. It’s even more ludicrous to point the finger of blame at current managers fielding weakened teams for killing an institution which has been in decline for many years. In their book Why England Lose, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski show that attendances for cup ties between teams in the same division used to exceed the equivalent league fixture. These gates were higher, they argue, even with no prospect of giant killing, because of the ‘magic of the cup’. It’s a plausible measure of the cup’s value (1).

However, as the authors explain, attendances for cup ties between clubs in the same division fell dramatically from the 1994/5 season. The cup’s health was deteriorating long before Manchester United snubbed the tournament in 2000. The fans were losing interest long before managers routinely started fielding weakened teams. Looked at this way we can see that under-strength teams are a symptom not the cause of the Cup’s plummeting stock.

Should we blame the Premier League instead? Certainly the Premiership title and Champions League qualification are more important for the handful of big clubs. But the majority of the 92 league clubs have little or no chance of getting into the Premier League let alone winning it. And, as Kuper and Szymanski explain, cup attendances have fallen in all four league divisions, not just in the top flight. The FA Cup, in other words, no longer means as much to lower league clubs either.

Blaming the bigger clubs for disrespecting the tournament might be a seductive explanation but it’s simply wrong. If we want to understand the competition’s decline, we have to look at what gave the FA Cup its magical properties in the first place. Firstly, there is the knockout format, which makes every match meaningful and, crucially, creates the possibility of giant killing. Kuper and Szymanski lay some of the blame for the tournament’s decline on the diminishing number of cup upsets; the tendency of the rate of giant killing to fall, if you like. I’m not sure that argument holds water. For all the debate about the Cup’s loss of value, a cup draw against a Premiership giant is still a very appealing prospect for lower division clubs. Fewer giants might be slain these days but as long as the Cup can deliver upsets like Leeds’ shock victory over Manchester United, the tournament will still satisfy our lust for Schadenfreude.

A more compelling argument put forward by Kuper and Szymanski for the diminished status of the tournament is the rise of televised football. Until the 1980s the Football League refused to allow league games to be televised live for fear that attendances would fall. The FA Cup Final used to be the only domestic club match which was broadcast live on television. Cup final day was a bone fide national institution. Everyone watched the game. The 1970 Cup Final replay between Chelsea and Leeds attracted a record TV audience of 28 million.

Today, however, the FA Cup Final is no longer the only show in town. We now have saturation football coverage on TV. Of course I’d much rather have too much televised football than too little but this consequently means that there is nothing magical about the Cup Final. Its mystique has evaporated. And if the showcase game of the FA Cup is no longer special then it’s inevitable that the tournament as a whole becomes devalued.

The truth is that nobody deliberately killed the FA Cup. We’ve just outgrown it. In the same way that we stopped believing in the tooth fairy, we’re no longer awestruck by a big silver trophy.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Why England Lose: And Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, Harper Collins, 2009. See my review here.

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