The ‘Magic of the Cup’ is a term often (over) used to describe that special time of the season as the new year beckons the 3rd round of the FA Cup and the bringing together of various David and Goliath clashes. The term has now become a cliché for one of lower league football’s few chances in the spotlight and the inevitable giant killing that goes with it. While no one would deny the likes of Bradford City their recent shock victory over a much vaunted Chelsea, building on their run in the League Cup of 2013, there is a decline of that so called magic.
The fall of cup football is clear to see in the professional game, be it either of England’s main cup competitions, Scotland or throughout continental Europe – where cup competition has never had that same appeal to begin with. In an era with the power houses of the Champions League, Premier League and La Liga it’s obvious that TV time and supporter interest are already stretched to put it mildly. The top English clubs may not want to admit it, but an FA Cup final packed into an already hectic final few weeks of the season is not desirable, hence its move to before the final game of the Premier League.
In a global game where the Premiership and Champions League are not just prestigious but financially vital, it’s almost more convenient to turn up to Wembley in late February/early March for a League Cup final and then concentrate on the League and Europe from that point on. There’s less pressure for playing the kids and less hassle from fans when getting knocked out of that much maligned tournament also.
Arsene Wenger may have finally brought silverware back to the Emirates and kept the wolf from his door, after defeating a plucky Hull side just shy of 12 months ago, but it would be remiss to say that he would have traded the famous trophy for the opportunity of lifting the Champions League on a humid Lisbon night.
And it’s not just the biggest clubs or the FA Cup either, just take Sunderland’s run to the final or Birmingham City’s triumph of 2011, both in the League Cup. Those sides boasted home crowds no greater than 20,000 for much of the tournament. About 15,000 fewer than a Saturday 3 p.m. game for Birmingham and 20,000 for Sunderland – until the semi-finals. Both those sides were also focused on League survival and in the case of Birmingham those cup exploits proved a bridge too far as the eventually succumbed to the grasps of the Championship.
Many fans would be quick to blame that same necessity to stay part of the Premier League. They would also point to a mixture of UEFA, foreign leagues and TV companies for the demise of such competitions with a rich history (well at least in the case of the FA Cup). They would point to the TV money for Premier League clubs to avail of and the international recognition of the Champions League, but they would be wrong.
They would also be wrong to point at the gap between the Professional game and the minnows that have to go through a unglamorous qualifying phase. After all the French cup boasts 7,000 teams and even clubs from former French colonies such as Guadeloupe and Réunion, amongst others, are all given the opportunity of playing the French Cup proper. But despite the romanticism, that competition has also seen better days.
The ones who should take the blame are those in charge, in other words the FA. It’s well and good to have sell out semi-finals and a final at Wembley, but that can only continue as long as there is some sort of an interest throughout the rounds. How much longer can fans that skip games between the 3rd round and Quarter-Finals realistically be expected to make the costly trip to London, in an even costlier stadium for games that for months previous they choose to catch down the pub with family and friends as opposed to that dodgy trip to Grimsby on a grey January afternoon. Sure the hardcores will be there, but as passionate as they are, comprise but a percentage of the overall attendance at a regular top flight game.
The Premier League is a fraction of the age of the FA, but runs itself in a far more professional manner, as do countless other sports leagues. The FA struggles to organise kid’s football with a proper development plan. How on earth could they be expected to sell a knock-out competition to the world’s TV companies?
As for the solution? It’s easy enough to play armchair manager, or in this case sports executive. A multitude of suggestions have been thrown about. The Italian FA toyed with the idea of Champions League football for their cup winners, but were shot down by UEFA. Big name sponsors help with branding and prize money, but it’s not Budweiser’s job to sort out other’s mistakes. Trends in ratings and attendances continue to gradually decline year on year and that special Saturday afternoon in May has gotten a little less special.
The FA need to promote the tradition and history of both cups to a new generation of fans, at home and abroad, who have grown up on a diet of bigger competitions. The novelty of seeing AFC Wimbledon face Liverpool in a partial retake of the legendary 1988 Final or Blyth Spartans popping up in the First Round proper is lost on them. So too will cup football should they hesitate to change.