Eastleigh & The Folly of FA Cup Scheduling
There is, without a great deal of doubt, something of a dark cloud hanging over the FA Cup this season. Even what might have been considered to be something approaching positive stories have become cloaked in cynicism, and much of that cynicism has been well-placed. From the BBC’s apparent love-in with Salford City, a relationship which started to look nauseating, especially when considering the involvement at that club of the billionaire businessman Peter Lim and the multi-millionaires of the increasingly ubiquitous “Class of ’92” gang, to top division clubs giving the impression of being involved in some sort of clandestine sub-competition to play their weakest available teams, the only polish on display in the 2016 FA Cup so far has been seen adorning the actual trophy itself.
The television schedulers have played a full part in this, from consigning Liverpool supporters to a Friday night journey to Devon to play Exeter City to their now completely transparent interest in only showing clubs that they believe will pull in the biggest ratings rather than those that might provide the most interesting ties. Between them, the clubs, the Football Association itself, sizable proportions of the press, the players and the managers have treated the entire competition in a simultaneously patronising and dismissive manner, with the interests of supporters – and, increasingly, the television audience in a broader sense – seeming to come pretty low on their list of priorities.
The decision of the Eastleigh chairman Stewart Donald to speak out on the matter of the scheduling of televised matches is, therefore, well-timed. The fact that it should be a representative of this particular club means that it is unlikely to pass without comment. Donald has complained that, having been passed over by the BBC and BT Sport for live coverage of their Third Round match against Bolton Wanderers, the failure of either broadcaster to take up the option to show either next week’s replay match at the Macron Arena – a match which, if the first match was anything to go by, Eastleigh have every chance of winning – or, should they get through, their home match in the Fourth Round of the competition against Leeds United was hypocritical on the part of the BBC, stating that, “One minute we have Football Focus down here talking about the romance of the Cup and the next they tell us we’re not being shown live.”
Such a pronouncement may well be treated with a degree of scepticism by supporters of other clubs at a similar level of the game to Eastleigh. Donald has been bankrolling Eastleigh through his company, Bridle Insurance, since the end of 2011, and under the influence of his munificence a club that was playing as low down the football pyramid as the Wessex League in 2003 has been promoted from the National League South, finishing in the National League play-offs. Eastleigh seems likely to repeat this feat again this season, with a run at the league title and a place in the Football League still not quite completely off the agenda. Critics might well argue that a football club that has had benefited significantly from the financial muscle that Donald has offered it could itself be considered a little hypocritical for invoking the “romance” clause when it may well be that the club’s complaints have as much to do with the non-receipt of television money as anything else.
Such criticisms may or may not be fair, but they should not be allowed to detract from a central point that is certainly valid, that the broadcasters have mostly made dreadful choices of live matches this season, picking games apparently almost entirely on the basis of the size of one of the clubs taking part in it. BT Sport got exactly what it deserved when Manchester United and Sheffield United stank their channel out for a couple of hours last Saturday evening, and there can’t have many people other than die-hard – or possibly incapacitated – supporters of those clubs involved who had the slightest interest in watching Chelsea play Scunthorpe United at Stamford Bridge on Sunday afternoon.
It is an oft-repeated fact that Manchester United haven’t failed to appear in a live televised match on an FA Cup weekend when they’ve been involved in the tournament since some time not long after the invention of the steam engine, but there is a serious point to be made here. Nobody denies that the very biggest clubs in the tournament have the most supporters or that their matches shouldn’t be live from time to time. Supporters of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal or Liverpool, however, do not make up anything like the entirety of English football support, and the likelihood of those of us who do not hold a candle for any of those four clubs even getting a dose of schadenfreude from an early exit is slim. And the broadcasters must know this. Two of the matches selected for live television in the Third Round of the competition – Oxford United vs Swansea City and Wycombe Wanderers – provided stories of interest in a way that was never going to happen at Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge. But still the modern trend of fortune favouring the biggest continues like a steamroller, slowly crushing the FA Cup into the ground to the extent that this year’s competition already looks like a facsimile of those from years gone by.
It’s understandable that some have chosen to be cynical about the motives of Eastleigh in invoking the word “romance” when their recent giddying ascent to near the top of the National League has funded in the way that it has. It may not be universal and it may not even be completely fair, but there are solid reasons behind why bankrolled clubs are not popular with rival supporters who are familiar with them, and these do not – as is often claimed – come down to “jealousy.” On this occasion, however, this particular club is entitled to complain, and if it is entitled to complain then surely it is entitled to do so loudly. Furthermore, even taking into account the financial position of Eastleigh FC at the moment, any club playing at the level at which they do would be more than grateful for the £72,000 that club receive for these television appearances.
The only thing that is likely to happen as a result of the devaluation of the FA Cup that we have seen in recent years is that its stock will continue to drop. For clubs, the benefits of perpetually finishing in fifteenth place in the Premier League to the exclusion of everything else are. What, exactly, those benefits are to supporters is somewhat less so. And the broadcasters, who have proved time and again this season that they hold supporters in something akin to contempt and don’t seem credit television audiences with a great deal of intelligence either, will continue to pick the biggest clubs to the exclusion of everybody else. And the FA Cup, the oldest football tournament in the world, will continue to slowly die before our very eyes. The comments of the chairman of Eastleigh Football Club are unlikely to stop this slow, lingering death of their own accord, but they might make a few people think about this state of affairs a little more. As such, regardless of their motives, they should be cautiously welcomed.
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