The FA Cup: Just Leave It Alone, Eh?
Another week, another bleat about the FA Cup from the “big” clubs. This one reminded Mark Murphy of the closest he has ever been to a genuine “scoop” in what he laughingly calls his journalistic career. And he thought you’d like him to share the memory with you. I know…I know… But he’s just turned fifty years old. Cut him some slack.
Football is full of clumsy deceit, as recent events at Liverpool and among Fifa presidential candidates demonstrate. And attempts to mask the desire of England’s Premier League (EPL) to break away completely from the rest of English club football have usually been as clumsily deceitful. The EPL was formed to help rid “big” clubs of many financial obligations to the rest of English professional football. First they eliminated the concept of gate-sharing. Then, with live televised league football gaining momentum nine years after its inception, away went broadcasting rights money-sharing. The latest of many more attempts has come in the guise of eliminating FA Cup replays and/or turning the FA Cup into a midweek competition. These proposals, still at a very early discussion stage it must be noted, are nominally “to improve the performances of both the clubs and the national team in European competitions.”
More clumsy deception? Well, only a handful of FA Cup entrants are affected by “European competition,” especially as “national team” is in the singular, despite the Welsh presence in the top division in recent years. And, on the face of it, moving ties from weekends to midweeks would only increase the opportunities for fixture clashes with the resolutely midweek Champions and Europa Leagues. The proposals appear more credibly defined as a step in the process of devaluing the FA Cup to the point of extinction. Because aside from the genuine “magic” which it can still provide (if resolutely not this year), the FA Cup retains the sort of wealth redistribution structure to bring EPL club owners out in a rash.
200% has, admirably, made the case for the FA Cup before. And I don’t intend to re-hash that work. Suffice to say that I believe eliminating the Football League Cup would achieve the EPL’s alleged wishes. The competition was utterly pointless when introduced in 1960 by the utterly pointless Alan Hardaker (ask your Grandad)… AND the actual trophy has an utterly pointless third handle. I have yet to hear a satisfactory answer as to why the competition exists and EPL clubs could exempt themselves from it simply by citing that fact that they are not in the Football League!! However, the main reason for striving for an excuse to write this article highlighting this particular EPL FA Cup “issue” (inverted commas required) is that it need not be an issue as, technically, it wasn’t an issue until recent years.
In February 2007, I was writing a weekly column for the VoiceofFootball website (which I was urged to note was “not the Alan Green one” back in the day). And the BBC coverage of the Arsenal and Blackburn Rovers FA Cup tie on a Saturday lunchtime caught my jaundiced eye. Arsenal had won 3-1 at Bolton in the league two-and-a-half days earlier. And, for their pre-match build-up, the BBC focused on the potential physical effect of that match. Three thoughts emerged from viewers nationwide. The first was “what did he say?” after a brief filmed interview with Arsenal striker Emanuel Adebayor (yes, his English even then was better than my Ewe or Mina but he spoke so damn fast). The last was to question why presenter Gabby Logan was pretending that the tie would take place at a “packed Emirates” when there were empty red seats as far as the eye could see behind the TV studio even as the teams came onto the pitch.
And the thought throughout was “why are they trying to link the two games when we all know Arsenal will make about nine changes to their starting eleven?” By 2007, this was already common practice. Adebayor was still a key part of Arsenal’s title ambitions (they were only two years into their Trophy-less spell under Arsene Wenger, and had been Champions League finalists nine months previously). So the BBC filmed a preview of the match which would clearly have no bearing on the match and included the thoughts of a likely non-participant in the match. Genius.
During my article research (those were the days, they cry), I sought out the FA Cup competition rules concerning teams’ obligations to field the “strongest” team available. Arsenal fielded Justin Hoyte and Jeremie Aliadiere (neither of whom were regulars in the “strongest” anything very much) among the predicted nine changes (including Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott who were still teenagers so not yet in Arsenal’s “strongest” side). And after Blackburn parked a bus and a bike to get a 0-0 draw, Wenger went on what I called a “predictable rant about replays.” It wasn’t just Wenger making excuses for an indifferent result, or for the subsequent predictable fade of Arsenal’s title challenge. Although it was partly that, of course. Manchester United’s assistant boss Carlos Queiroz had also called for extra-time in first matches and Newcastle boss Glenn Roeder wanted penalties too.
However, like the Trinity College cleaner who, in the old joke, found the book Irish Dancing Volume 2: How to incorporate the arms, I made a shocking discovery. In 2007, FA Cup Rule 12 (b) read: “If a first match is drawn after 90 minutes, an extra 30 minutes may be played.” And this rule could be invoked for all competition ties prior to the semi-finals, provided both participating clubs agreed. There was no reference to “kicks from the penalty mark,” the football-legalese for penalties. But Wenger’s and Queiroz’s desires were satisfied. “Surely someone else in the football press spotted this?” I asked, before… forgetting all about the subject.
The calls re-emerged almost exactly two years later, during one of Alex Ferguson’s moments of clarity in his ruddy-faced years. He spotted the rule (not because he’d read my article, I’m guessing). United tried to invoke it for their tie against Tottenham but failed as the FA required notice within seven days of the tie being drawn. So Ferguson promised that United would “investigate” the rule even though (or, more likely knowing him, precisely because) he knew United would be criticised for “not adhering to the principles and spirit of the FA Cup.” This, remember, was nine years after they’d eschewed the competition entirely in favour of Fifa’s World Club Cup.
The FA suggested the rule was “aimed at the preliminary rounds to help teams with geographical distances.” This, though, was typical FA-speak, well-intentioned but, under the merest scrutiny, logically collapsible. If the rule was aimed at “the preliminary rounds” (one extra-preliminary, one preliminary and four qualifying) it would surely not specifically apply to all games before the semi-finals. And Ferguson added, mischief-making no doubt, that if invoking the rule was against the “spirit” of the competition, “why have the FA got it in there?” Yet despite consistent calls for one-stop FA Cup ties, the rule that facilitated them was not amended to include penalties and now only exists as a specific rule governing replays. If clubs’ concerns about “performances in European competition” were genuine, it remains surprising that the rule was ignored even after United tried to invoke it (I’ll forgive clubs for not picking up on my article straight away) and then allowed to disappear altogether. Hence my cynical suspicion of the real motives.
Of course, the real reason for this article is to demonstrate that I did a good bit of journalism once. And to take this early opportunity to flag up future threats to the world’s greatest cup competition. But mostly the good journalism thing. Still, FA Cup replays are not the major reason for the fixture congestion supposedly infecting the ability of the “greatest league in the world” to significantly impact upon the Champions League in recent years. European-qualified teams would only participate in four FA Cup replays, maximum, given their late entry into the competition (although even two would be unusual).
And there are other ways to lop four games off the season’s schedule. Better ways, if we are really talking about “European competition” success. Ways which need not financially impact upon any club if some strategic thought were given to the spending of the latest increase in broadcasting rights billions, beyond players’ wages (already at “more than they could ever spend in their lifetime” levels) and multi-million pound bonuses for sexist Chief Executives. However, I’m not so naïve as to assume that such thinking will appear during on-going discussions on these proposals. So the rallying call has to be long and loud… and start here.
Leave the FA Cup alone. Please.
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