How to solve a problem like the FA Cup?

Michael Lee

David Mitchell said it best. In a standout clip from the Mitchell and Webb Show that parodies Sky Sports' promotion of football, Mitchell exclaims that ‘this month every football team will be playing football several times and in various combinations’.

While this ridiculing of the game may seem sacrilege to some, it essentially nails an increasingly held belief. There is an argument that there is simply too much football these days – both for clubs and for supporters who watch games on TV. Managers such as Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola bemoan the amount of games their teams are required to play, bringing to mind collectors of vintage figurines who spend lavish sums on items but refuse to take them out of the box. Increasingly, there is an unspoken sentiment that football matches are getting in the way of the accumulation of money.

Which leads us onto the FA Cup. Discussion about the decline of the competition has become as much of a January tradition as failed New Year’s resolutions. Bulldozed by the commercial behemoth that is the Premier League and overshadowed for elite teams by the Champions League, the FA Cup has become the increasingly poor relation of English football.

Weakened teams are a feature of early rounds, with managers prioritising the chance to finish fourteenth in the Premier League over the opportunity of a trophy. Replays have been scrapped after the Fourth Round, attendances at stadiums can be sparse and the prestige of Cup Final day feels increasingly irrelevant to many.

Some of this understandable. Third Round Day, where clubs from the top two divisions enter the competition, used to be one of the highlights of the domestic football calendar. Nowadays, coming after a festive schedule as relentless as Garth Crooks pursuing the end of a sentence, it presents an opportunity for managers to rotate tired squads and the relief for some upon elimination is palpable.

Attendances at Cup matches between teams from the same division were higher than the equivalent league fixture until the 1990s. These days the opposite is true, partly down to the absence of Cup fixtures from season-tickets. Therefore, games in the early rounds can be played to the backdrop of closed stands and local apathy.

A more recent development has been the staggering of kick-off times to appeal to foreign markets. While it is my instinct that the people of Shanghai can live without live coverage of Bristol City versus Shrewsbury, clearly executives at the Football Association feel otherwise.

A less obvious problem is the role of the BBC. With the broadcasting of the Premier League, Football League and European competition dominated by paywall channels, the FA Cup is the only live club football shown on the national broadcaster. Consequently, they treat coverage in an irritatingly shrill manner.

Any viewer who has not seen footage of Ronnie Radford’s goal against Newcastle in 1972 should seek immediate medical attention. The overuse of the same set of clips, intended to remind us of the history of the competition, has the effect of reinforcing the image of the FA Cup being yesterday’s news.

Live games are covered with the possibility of a shock result framing almost every question put to pundits. In reality, upsets remain rare. In this year’s Fourth Round, the only Premier League team to be knocked out by a team from a lower division was West Ham, which should not be a shock in this or any other season.

However, if a surprise result does occur, surely the impact of the shock will be lessened by the incessant hope and unspoken expectation of one? While underdog stories do remind us of the joy football can elicit, the BBC would do well not to patronise its viewers.

Despite this, there are some immediate solutions that can rescue the perception of the competition. Firstly, semi-finals should return to being played at neutral grounds, ideally one between the two competing teams. Every time England plans a World Cup bid, we are told that we possess a set of stadiums that are the envy of the world. However, since the opening of the rebuilt Wembley in 2007, these ties have been exclusively played at the national stadium.

The overuse of Wembley has been one of the saddest tropes of modern football and a reversion to using grounds such as Old Trafford and Villa Park would be universally popular amongst supporters, while increasing the prestige of a trip to Wembley.

Replays should also be fully reinstated. Football is about more than the Premier League and replays can provide importance financial lifeboats for teams from the lower divisions. The money Exeter City received from a replay with Manchester United in 2005 enabled the club to recover from financial turmoil propagated by the presence of Uri Geller.

For fans of clubs who view the Cup as an inconvenience, it is worth remembering that one of the most iconic games in FA Cup history (the semi final between Arsenal and Manchester United in 1999) was actually a replay. Besides demonstrating that Ryan Giggs possessed prodigious chest hair, the match also showed that replays need not be sacrificed in the name of fixture congestion. Suggestions of a reformatting of the Champions League to include four more group games indicate there are more worthy targets of blame to be had.

One mooted solution that should not be implemented is the introduction of seeding, as in the Coupe de France. Fans of this idea claim that it would increase the opportunity for unfamiliar teams to play each other and increase the opportunity of shock results.

However, the FA Cup draw stands as one of football’s last bastions of equal opportunity. Seeding has riddled qualifying for continental and international tournaments, producing largely the same set of teams in the final stages every year. It should be celebrated that every team has an equal chance of playing everyone and the introduction of seeding would not only create an artificial feeling but reduce the delight of a lower-league team upon drawing one of the elite. It is one of life’s great discoveries that rarity can make an occasion that bit more special.

It seems that, without sweeping change, the FA Cup is doomed to increasing irrelevance until the competition is eventually put out of its misery. However, the football authorities should resist the temptation to introduce radical measures to prevent this. With every other competition attempting to attract foreign interest (the Spanish Super Cup being played in Saudi Arabia just one example), it can be argued that going down this route would only accelerate the decline.

Instead, the FA Cup should revert to some of its unique distinctions and recreate interest with domestic fans before thinking about world domination. The FA Cup will never rival the Premier League in terms of global interest. Alternatively, for fans of mediocre clubs, the FA Cup has the potential to create lifelong memories in ways the Premier League never could.

Football is for the many, not for the few. Despite its limitations, when discussing the FA Cup we would do well to remember this.