Is the FA Cup in decline? The media seems to think so. And declining crowds for Cup games, combined with the second boring draw in succession, would indicate that they’re right. And they are, aren’t they? So, what’s happened, and what can be done about it?
Until as recently as 1956, the FA Cup was one of only two competitions that the top clubs would be involved in over the course of the season, the other being the Football League. Reflecting back on that time, winning the League looks good, but winning the Cup looks glamorous. It’s memorable, too: compare the numbers of people who know that Blackpool won the FA Cup in Coronation Year with those who remember the Pompey title-winning side of the ’40s. That’s reflected in the crowd numbers at Finals – an effortless 100,000 at Wembley, every year, that could have been doubled had the stadium been bigger. Pre-1914 Finals saw crowds of at least 115,000. Now, the FA Cup has to share our attention with a noisier Premiership – that’s where so much of the Cup’s old hype and glamour has gone, effectively trumped by Sky Sports – and with enlarged European competitions. Seven Premiership clubs were involved this season in mini-league European formats, four matches in the UEFA Cup, six in the Champions League. When Liverpool retained the European Cup in 1978, six matches were all that they required to reach the Final. Now, six matches get them access to the last 16.
The FA Cup has to fight harder for our attention, and it has to do so without the help of that great feature of the competition between 1975 and 1991, “cup competition teams”. Over that period, the Cup regularly fell into the hands of a group of attractive, football-playing sides whose weaknesses and inconsistencies meant that they were unable to challenge seriously for the League title. West Ham United, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, all won repeated Cups, and by doing so put off the time when the demands of league success meant that Cup victory came in its wake.
Spurs’ Cup-League double of 1961 was the first in living memory. It was ten years before it happened again, in 1971 with Bob Wilson’s Arsenal. And 23 years before the next one, from Manchester United. Since then, the “feat” has been achieved twice more by United, and twice again by Arsenal.
The FA Cup is starting to look like an offer in a Viking catalogue: win the League, and get this historic trophy absolutely free. Little wonder, then, that interest begins to fade. At least the Champions League represents a challenge to England’s Big Four.
But there’s more to it than just that. The FA Cup has been through periods of top club dominance before. So often, it has been won either by the reigning League Champions, or by the club who would go on to win the League in the following season. In the late 60s and early 70s, the near omnipresence of Leeds, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea in the FA Cup Final made for what was until recently the Cup’s most predictable run of Finals.
Something has changed in the way the FA Cup is presented compared to other tournaments. The Champions League is the ultimate, despite its inability to deliver up worthwhile matches more than once or twice per season – it’s the Promised Land in that horrible, overused phrase. The Premiership Top Four is next, although the title has been beyond all but a choice of two clubs in any given season for some time now. The League Cup, currently known as the Carling Cup, comes out from hiding only when it is needed to pad out the trophy cupboard of a desperate member of the Big Four: that competition’s glory days of Liverpool and Forest are long gone and one suspects never to return.
And then comes the FA Cup. Have you noticed how it’s no longer a serious competition in the way the others are?
Instead, it’s become an expression of the age and history of English football. The draw, traditionally made quietly on the radio with a bag of wooden numbered balls, is now Traditional (TM), nailed like a tribal fetish to a televised ceremony that must happen on a Monday come what may. The focus of interest is not on the progress of the top clubs, as it is with both League and European competitions, but emphatically on the chances of little clubs both getting a “big club” “back at (insert name of little club’s ground)” and the little club’s chances of “bringing off a shock” and presenting the big club with a “banana skin”.
All this is done to a backdrop made up of images from (in football’s opinion)the distant past. The Matthews Final – which took place a year after the hydrogen bomb test – presented like something out of the Cecil Sharpe Archive; Ronnie Radford, whose goal against Newcastle is supposedly the sunniest moral moment in the game’s history, a righting of unwritten wrongs. Look at Malcolm Macdonald, kneeling in the mud! And the rest..
The FA Cup’s become a bit like Hymns Ancient and Modern, or the Book of Common Prayer – supposedly central to our national consciousness, but actually a museum piece, brought out on special occasions to be lauded by people too young to remember that all this was contemporary once. The over-emphasis on giant killing is a media construct – the “human element” that every story must have, apparently, if it is to get our attention. That it’s always the same human element, and that we’ve had it banged over our heads year on year, means it’s lost whatever impact it might have had.
Yeovil beating Sunderland in 1949 was a genuine shock. If a Conference side beat a Premiership side now, it would still be shocking, but it wouldn’t shock in the same way. It would be boredom shock: the kind you’ll feel if bird flu finally makes it out of rehearsals. (If that happens, of course, there’ll be boredom terror, too, to say nothing of boredom panic. And boredom hysteria).
In short, the FA Cup is a competition that the media treat essentially as a Robin Hood relic from the past, which fans feel has come to resemble a disused Portakabin parked behind Knight Frank or Jackson-Stops.
So, what to do?
Of course, the first question might be, is there anything that can be done? Is it even desirable to do anything? After all, the FA Cup was created to solve a problem that ceased to exist in 1888. And the League Cup was created because the FA Cup was so bad at providing revenue opportunities for little clubs, something that gets forgotten now. The huge European competitions are the triumphant realization of a long-held dream, one impeded by war and (let’s be honest) by us. We could just allow the Cup to continue as it is, with all its preservation society lustre and comforting familiarity.
And we can’t really look at reining in the Premiership and Champions League just for the sake of the FA Cup.
But we could do something to the Carling Cup, and it would make a considerable difference.
I propose four changes. One, get rid of the League Cup altogether – and, with the exception of clubs with European ties ahead of them, have every League and Premiership club enter the FA Cup in the First Round. That would ensure retention of revenue at present coming from the Carling Cup, and increase the chances of a decent payday for non-league clubs. It would present Premiership clubs with matches against minnows that would actually matter to the bigger club, forcing them to play full-strength, or at least reasonable-strength, sides.
Change number three would be to remove that fourth-spot Champions League place, and present it to the FA Cup winners. Change number four would be to move the FA Cup UEFA Cup spot to the fourth placed team in the Premiership. Or – let’s be imaginative – give it to the non-League club that lasts longest in the Cup, along with a grant for travel costs. That would provide the FA Cup with the financial status it currently lacks, and make the winning of it important in a way it isn’t now. And it would present some poor European club with a quite different sort of challenge.
None of this will happen. Next year, perhaps, the draw will be kinder to small clubs, and what with the return to a new Wembley, some of that churchly dust will blow off the competition. Perhaps.
(Wolves v Portsmouth, 1939: football commentary finds a new low…)