I’d thought that I must have covered the issue of FA Cup replays before, but recent comments in the press by Premiership managers have forced my hand again. You know how it is: I just can’t resist it. The latest comments have come from Arsene Wenger and Glenn Roeder, both of whom are rather of the opinion that the only way to save football (volume seventy-three) is to scrap FA Cup replays and play extra-time and penalties at all FA Cup matches. Fans don’t want them, they say, and they add to a fixture pile-up that damages the hopes of England’s brightest and best. Roeder adds that it will increase the chances of upsets, with teams from the lower divisions having a much better chance of winning a penalty shoot-out than a replay. Well, of course, Glenn.
First things first. No-one from within the game that ever comes out with these pronouncements does so through altruism. In Arsene’s case, the priorities are pretty clear. If it was down to him, he’d pull his team from the Carling Cup altogether, play the stiffs in the FA Cup, and leave his big guns for the Champions League and the Premiership. It can’t be that there are too matches for Arsene, after all – he was one of UEFA’s loudest critics when they decided to withdraw the second group phase of the Champions League a couple of years ago. With Glenn, there are also reasons at play – with the benefit of hindsight, of course he’d have preferred a penalty shoot-out at St Andrews in the Third Round to a 5-1 stuffing at home in the replay, in front of live BBC cameras. Of course, Glenn’s complaints about fixture congestion deserve closer inspection. Did his one FA Cup replay really causing more fixture congestion than the Intertoto Cup, which his team started playing in as long ago as July? Or the all-new, bloated UEFA Cup group phase, which Newcastle have been competing in since August? Let’s just tidy this up once and for all – FA Cup replays are categorically not the cause of fixture congestion. Most teams don’t have any over the course of a normal season, and the vast majority of the remainder would only have one.
Okay, let’s move onto the argument that fans don’t want them. It’s true to say FA Cup replay crowds are frequently lower than other matches, but to say that this is merely because fans don’t want them is almost infantile in it’s over-simplification. Glenn – would you like to know how to fill St James Park for an FA Cup replay? It’s pretty simple – slash the admission prices! Give the tens of thousands that have been priced out of watching their favourite team a chance to watch them! There is a reason why the clubs don’t do this, of course – 25,000 people paying £30 each is still more money than 52,000 people paying £10 each. And if you start cutting the prices for these matches, they might have the temerity to realise that the true cost of football is vastly over-inflated. And then they might start refusing to pay that £30 every couple of weeks and finding a way of spending their money that gives them better value for money. This is, as I think I’ve mentioned on here before, is the inherent danger in treating supporters like consumers. They might choose to shop elsewhere.
So, let’s move on to the effect that it would have on smaller clubs. Glenn would like us to think that a lower division or semi-professional player would prefer a penalty shoot-out to a replay if they get to the end of ninety minutes. Consider this out-pouring from today’s Guardian:
“If you examine FA Cup ties between Premiership and lower-league sides where the smaller team wins you will see that set-plays lead to a high percentage of “giant-killing” goals. An ability to exploit dead-ball situations is often one area where two otherwise mismatched teams can frequently prove surprisingly evenly matched.
Considering that a penalty is a set-piece, shoot-outs are consequently great levellers and increase the likelihood of the underdog progressing to the next round. As we’ve seen at major tournaments, top international stars have regularly shown they are capable of missing penalties, yet a lower-league player lacking the pace or skill required at the highest level may, nevertheless, take a good penalty. Extra-time and shoot-outs could offer smaller teams fantastic chances of extended cup runs”.
I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard such rot in my entire life. Football is a game that plays, in spite of what commentators would have you believe, like a stream of consciousness. There are a million different variables that can or will affect the outcome of the game. If a team of lower division players holds a team of internationals over ninety minutes, it’s because they’ve earned it. In the replay, a different set of variables (but a equally massive set) will be in play. A penalty shoot-out removes 90% of the confusion, the chance and the luck from the ultimate decision process. Why do lower division teams score from set pieces? Because set pieces within the game itself cause the sort of confusion that momentarily knock the years of training and composure out of the best players. For a few seconds, football becomes more like a game of pinball than chess. A penalty kick is the exact opposite of this. It’s a different type of tension, and it’s a type of tension that Premiership players are more accustomed to than lower division players. Even his point about international players in the World Cup is flawed – these players are playing against the best goalkeepers in the world. They wouldn’t be in the FA Cup third round.
So, then, to clarify: the FA Cup isn’t the cause of fixture congestion in English football, lower division teams don’t have a better chance of winning a penalty shoot-out than a replay and fans almost certainly would go to FA Cup replays if football wasn’t so damn expensive. Bearing these in mind, I’ll say “yes” to scrapping FA Cup replays, if Premiership clubs agree to the following:
1. Scrap any English involvement in the Intertoto Cup, and let a club from a less wealthy country a shot at getting into the UEFA Cup.
2. Lobby UEFA to scrap the ridiculously over-blown UEFA Cup group stages.
3. Lobby UEFA to cut the number of Champions League places from four to three, and then give the third place to the FA Cup winners.
4. Cut the number of Premiership clubs from twenty to eighteen, in line with practically every other European top division.
5. Under-take to cut all FA Cup ticket prices to a maximum of £10.
6. Agree to no further money-spinning trips to the other side of the world whenever there’s any sort of break in the season.
If these measures don’t cut fixture congestion and re-invigorate the interests of the fans, then (and only then) should FA Cup replays be scrapped.