Earlier this week, Owen Gibson of the Guardian reported that the FA were considering making a change to the FA Cup (under a banner of revitalisation for the competition) in order to help create a mid-season break, in order to the England squad. The change is one that would seismic across English football, and that change would be scrapping FA Cup replays. Even in the article itself, the suggestion is that the scrapping of FA Cup replays would only free up one midweek date, and that midweek date would be filled by a set of fixtures allowing for a two week break, or in other words, one Saturday off. However, far from revitalising the competition, it may be the beginning of the end for the world’s oldest football competition.
In 1991, the FA scrapped the possibility of second replays, and that any tie unresolved after extra time of the second game would instead be decided by penalties. This change wasn’t one of the FA’s making – instead their hand was forced by a police decision whereby forces would now need at least seven days notice, in order to police a replay. It didn’t matter where the game was played, under which force’s auspices the game would come under, the size of the anticipated crowds, and whether the game would be contested by two professional sides or not, a blanket decision was made, and the FA were forced into line. In some respects, it may have been seen as a response to the Hillsborough disaster (where the police had four weeks to prepare) and their criticism in the Taylor Report, although the Taylor Report made no recommendation in terms of minimum time needed in order to prepare for matches.
Whatever the reasoning behind the decision, it was one that changed the FA Cup forever, and one that weakened the competition irrevocably in a lot of people’s eyes. Taking the step further to remove replays, and essentially giving the same rules as the League Cup would only serve to suggest that the two competitions are as important. The suggestion of a winter break is not a bad one in itself – in fact at the top flight level, it is important for those players (of all nationalities) involved in major international tournaments to have a break between August and July. With the money that clubs receive from the Premier League, there is no reason why top flight clubs cannot invest in one of the many techniques that enable them to keep their pitches playable during the winter months. In fact, as with last season, the only reason why clubs should be postponing games in the top flight is because of the approaches to the ground being treacherous – and considering how few games have been called off for that reason in the top flight over the last ten years, it will rarely become a logistical problem. Later, we’ll look at the ways in which a winter break can be achieved without interfering with the FA Cup, but first, a few reasons why replays should not be sacrificed in favour of a winter break:
• First off, it’s all a bit knee jerk. After all, to scrap FA Cup replays, would suggest that the replays themselves had built up for the England squad of the last year. This was not the case. Of the England players that played in South Africa, only Steven Gerrard (1), Peter Crouch (2), Gareth Barry (1), James Milner (1), Shaun Wright-Phillips (1), Jamie Carragher (1) and Jermain Defoe (2) played in FA Cup replays last season. Even then, one of Defoe’s appearances was only 45 minutes, and Wright-Phillips only played for an hour. Is the addition of those extra nine games between seven players enough to cancel all replays?
• Should those clubs that don’t generate players for the England team sacrifice FA Cup revenue, just to benefit the elite? Exeter City were screwed over by John Russell and Mike Lewis, and the money they received from their FA Cup games against Manchester United in 2006 – including the replay at St. James Park, and the money they received from the replay being televised live on BBC, helped save the club from extinction. A season later, Burton Albion’s draw at the Pirelli stadium earned them a payday at Old Trafford. A extra time defeat on the same day, or even a penalty win an a subsequent fourth round trip to Wolverhampton Wanderers would not have brought the financial reward that the replay did.
• Giving a team a chance to win on the day via the penalty spot is more likely to give underdog sides the choice of trying to “park the bus” in front of goal, and grind out a draw with the option of sneaking through on penalties. Would a side such as Havant & Waterlooville find themselves look for a win at Anfield, knowing that an eleven man defence has a better chance of seeing them into the fourth round draw.
• If English football needs a winter break so badly, how did the Netherlands get to the final with four players (John Heitinga, Dirk Kuyt, Nigel de Jong and Robin van Persie) playing in six or seven of their World Cup run, and play in a Premier League season?
The latter might seem a snipe at the winter break idea in general, but in the right circumstances, I’m all for it. In fact, there are better ways to create a winter break. Examples of these are:
• Change the entry criteria for the League Cup – make it for Football League sides only. After all, many top flight sides play an under-strength side in the competition, and when Manchester United or Arsenal reserves can still breeze to the semi-final or the final, the only reason that the top flight sides still enter (the European place), seems a little wasted. The side that finishes sixth in the league deserves to enter the Europa League more, and by removing the five or six rounds from the calendar, you can have a real winter break, not a Saturday off. It’s not as if League Cup games between League Two and Premier League sides are money spinners any more, as the world and his wife knows that the chances of the Premier League side fielding a strong team (let alone their strongest) is minimal.
• Reduce the number of Premier League games, by reducing the number of Premier League games. I could go into detail on this one, but wasn’t one of the selling points of the Premier League the suggestion that it would contain 18 teams, meaning fewer games, in order to help the England side? Fifteen years ago the league was reduced by 22 to 20 teams, but the next step down never came (and the Football League could use the opportunity to slighty reduce it’s league sizes and create a League Three, rather than lose two more sides to non-league). An 18 team top flight, reduces the number of league games to 34, into line with most of Europe, and again, gives the opportunity to have a real winter break, instead of a Saturday off.
• Start the Premier League the same time that the Football League starts. The Football League has started one week earlier than the Premier League since 2000. The scrapping of replays would create one free weekend. How about just starting the league one week earlier then?
• Make the start and end dates of the leagues a little more flexible. If there is a major international tournament at the end of the season, start and end a week or two earlier, if there isn’t, start and end the season a week or two later.
All of those suggestions would create a better winter break, and would benefit the top flight, without making the rest of football have to suffer as a result. After all, the Football Association is supposed to look after the best interests of all of English football, isn’t it?