You could tell that, by yesterday lunchtime, large parts of the media had run out of things to say about this year’s FA Cup. With Manchester United and Chelsea having been eliminated, the autocues ran dry and the tippity-lapping of the hacks hunched over their laptops slowed to a halt. Barnsley, Cardiff City, West Bromwich Albion and Portsmouth? Oh. What can we find to say about them? On Sunday afternoon, the final two FA Cup quarter-finals were played out and, surprise surprise, the penultimate Premier League club left in this year’s competition fell by the wayside. Once again, this year’s FA Cup has demonstrated that rumours of The Death Of English Football might just have been over-exaggerated. There’s life in the old girl yet.
There was something quite predictable about Middlesbrough not turning up for their match against Cardiff City. I have slated Gareth Southgate on here before, but he has at least taken the Cup seriously, and probably deserved better than the lethargic performance that he got from his players. Faced with an outstanding chance (they will surely never have it that easy again, would they?) to win the FA Cup, his team folded and Cardiff City will return to Wembley for the semi-finals for the first time since 1927. In the evening, West Bromwich Albion had too much in the tank for Bristol Rovers to be able to cope with. There is a certain element of destiny about Albion’s cup run – it’s forty years exactly since they last made the cup final, and they were also the last team to win the FA Cup and get promoted in the same season (even though this happened in 1931).
The semi-final draw was made yesterday lunchtime, and it lined Portsmouth up against West Bromwich Albion, whilst Barnsley will play Cardiff City. One of the sub-plots to these matches will concern the Barnsley goalkeeper Luke Steele. Steele in on loan to Barnsley from West Bromwich Albion, and his outstanding performances made up a large part of the reason for The Tykes’ wins against Liverpool and Chelsea. It would be a massive disappointment if Barnsley and West Bromwich Albion were to get to the FA Cup final and Albion barred him from playing, but that debate is for another day. In case you were wondering, by the way, it has been exactly 100 years since there was only team from the top division in the semi-finals, as well. Meanwhile, Cardiff were the last non-English team to win the FA Cup, and Barnsley haven’t made this stage of the competition since 1912. It will be firsts all round, this season, no matter who wins, and this is all the more refreshing when one considers the turgid performance with which Manchester United and Chelsea baptised the new Wembley stadium last May.
The failure of the big clubs to make so much as the semi-finals this year is certainly a curiosity. The vast financial advantages that they enjoy render the argument that “they don’t care about the FA Cup” largely irrelevant. Even if they put their reserve teams out, the Big Four at least should surely have had enough about them to find one representative in the Last Four. The fact of the matter is that Chelsea put out a very, very strong team at Oakwell on Saturday, as did Manchester United against Portsmouth earlier in the afternoon. They both have strength in depth that even other teams in the Premier League would kill for. I am coming to the opinion that the difference between the Premier League and the rest isn’t as great as many would like to think that it is. Teams in the Championship are as tightly-drilled and well organised as those playing in the Premier League, these days, and they have proved themselves to be capable of matching them all the way.
The big danger for the FA is that, now the superstars have their attention diverted elsewhere, he rest of the world will lose interest. The FA Cup may have already had its final for 2008 – it’s just that there were several of them, and they were played in February and March. The media will certainly find it more expedient to concentrate on the Champions League, where the names are reassuringly familiar and the rivalries are cast in stone. There’s no need to do any research when you can just fill the back pages and the pre-match preamble with debates about Frank Lampard, whether Arsenal should shoot more and whether Liverpool will be affected by the ongoing backstage rumblings at Anfield. There will probably be plenty of talk about how this year’s semi-final line-up demonstrates that the FA Cup doesn’t matter any more, but the truth of the matter is that the opposite is closer to the truth. There are plenty of people for whom the perfect future would be battles of attrition between Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, being played out for all eternity.
However, for those of us that value more than the celebrity lifestyles of the rich and the famous, the FA Cup is living proof of a fundamental truth of football that we thought had died out. The hopelessly imbalanced distribution of money with the English game has skewed the league system to the point of being hopelessly predictable, and the league system itself has the inherent feature of making the one off surprise result unimportant. The law of averages determines that the richest will always win, because they always have the capacity to bounce back from an unexpected defeat. This (and the extra money from the extra matches) was the primary factor behind the European Cup converting itself into the Champions League, and the result has been that you now see the same clubs in the last sixteen every season. If Manchester United, Chelsea, Portsmouth and Barnsley had played each other twice in a mini-group rather than against each other in one off cup matches, there can be little doubt that Manchester United and Chelsea would have won through to the next round. They would argue that this is a desirable situation, and that there is too much at stake, financially speaking, for failure to be an option. Once you stray into this territory, however, you are no longer talking about football as a sport. – you are talking about it solely as a business. And for all the fireworks, booming music and people shouting “THIS IS IMPORTANT” at me, I remain unconvinced after all these years.
It is, I think, critical, that we watch the remainder of this year’s FA Cup. Our failure to do so will be a vindication for those that see football as being purely a business. You can be absolutely certain that small TV audiences for the semi-finals and the final will be used as evidence for the FA Cup’s irrelevance in the modern game, when the truth of the matter is that the presence of four of the more modest names in English football at this stage of the competition is proof of the opposite. It demonstrates the enormous strength in depth of English football, and of the fact that, for all the talk of “modernisation” and “revenue streams”, we are still the owners of a competition that appeals to an instinct that runs deeper than a desire to see Big Football. If the media chooses to, it could yet ruin the 2008 FA Cup, but there are stories to be told about the clubs still in it that could yet capture the public imagination, and the interest surrounding the exploits of the likes of Barnsley and Havant & Waterlooville demonstrates that this thirst still exists. It is now down to us, the audience, to prove that we are fans of the game, and not just consumers that are only interested in big, sparkly baubles.