Earlier on this afternoon, Bolton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur played out a reasonably entertaining match in the Fifth Round of the FA Cup which ended in a 1-1 draw, meaning that the two sides will replay at White Hart Lane a week on Wednesday. The match was played out against a backdrop of empty seats, and this is part of the reason why The Times reports today that the FA’s Chief Executive, Ian Watmore, has come up with a set of proposals that he seems to think will reinvigorate the competition. It’s a list gives us great cause for concern – a series of sops to the biggest clubs (whose opinion of the FA Cup isn’t, to put it bluntly, going to change any time soon). Let’s have a look at the proposals listed, why they are being suggested and what effect they are likely to have.
1. Scrapping replays. It has been mentioned before, has scrapping replays. The appeal of this is obvious, at a superficial level. Less fixtures means that it is less likely that the big clubs will be less likely to field under-strength sides. However, the possibility of a replay can mean a fortune to a smaller club which has worked itself into the ground against a bigger club. In any case, the FA already have rules about clubs having to field full strength teams in the competition, but these have been broken and haven’t been enforced for years. Unless the FA are effectively going cap in hand and trying to cut a deal with the Premier League, there is no guarantee that clubs will field full strength teams unless there is an incentive for them to do so. The problem is that there are too many Premier League matches and too many Champions League matches, but that isn’t going to change any time soon.
2. Midweek Fixtures. Moving fixtures to midweek has really worked for the League Cup down the years, hasn’t it? Still, the prevailing opinion still seems to be that the FA needs to be more “flexible” in accomodating fixtures around the Premier League and the Champions League. There is something lopsided about this logic. The FA wants to increase the profile and number of people going to FA Cup matches, so it puts them on a time that is more difficult for most people. There is, after all, a long history of smaller crowds for midweek matches in any competition when compared to Saturday matches. Even the Europa League, which clubs spend much of the season before struggling to get into, sees rows Again, this cannot be interpreted in any way other than being a sop to the biggest clubs.
3. Shaking Up The Prize Money. On the face of things, this looks like a sensible proposal. The winners of the FA Cup currently earn around £3.5m, and a season in the Premier League – according to a club’s final league position – is worth around ten times that amount. With a greater financial reason to stay in the Premier League than to win the cup, it will continue to be treated with less reverence by the bigger club. The problem with this, even if we take it at face value, is two-fold. Firstly, the FA Cup is simply not going to raise the sort of prize money that the Premier League or the Champions League does. Secondly, any reorganisation in increase the prize fund for the winners will take money away from the smaller clubs. Unless, the prize fund can be increased – and that seems unlikely in the current climate – another life-line would be taken away from them in order to keep the biggest clubs “on board”.
4. Using It To Showcase “Pioneering Innovations”. There is, according to The Times, “a school of thought within the FA that, as a pioneering competition, it could benefit from staging such experiments in [the] future”. Quite how this squares (and the same goes, obviously, for point one) with the tradition and heritage of the competition isn’t something that the FA are easily going to be able to answer. Turning it into a football circus so that millions will turn up to watch players playing an “experimental” version of the game would seem to be an admission that the competition is on its way out. Such a move would be likely to be a nail in the coffin of the integrity of the FA Cup.
5. Seeding The Competition. One of the key features of the FA Cup is that anyone can draw anyone. The logical thinking behind those that wish to seed the competition is that it would keep the biggest clubs apart until the latter stages of the competition. This, however, doesn’t address several important facts about the FA Cup. Firstly, is it already seeded. This is how Premier League clubs come to join a competition that starts in August at the start of January. Secondly, considering that one of the biggest criticisms of English football is how stultifying it has all become over the last fifteen years, with the same three or four teams winning almost everything, what, exactly is the benefit in making it even easier for them? The fact that Liverpool Manchester United and Arsenal were out of the competition before a ball in the Fifth Round had even been kicked has nothing to do with seeding and everything to do with all three of those teams being beaten by teams that outplayed them on the day.
There has, as yet, been no official word that any of these supposed “innovations” are to be seriously discussed. However, the very fact that they have come into the public domain from somewhere is cause for us to be concerned. The institutional problems that the FA Cup faces are nothing to do with anything that the above suggestions would alter. It is difficult to look them without thinking that anybody that would put forward such suggestions would seem to be more interested in making everything a bit easier for the biggest clubs at the expense of everyone else. Quite what backroom politics exactly are going on are anybody’s guess. Transparency is invisible within modern football.
There are solutions to the issues that people raise concerning the FA Cup, of course, but none of them are ever going to win the approval of the Premier League. Clubs could be told to include cup matches for people that buy season tickets (if you’re paying £600 per year for a season ticket, an extra £30 or so per match for the FA Cup starts to make the option of staying at home on a Sunday afternoon when the match is live on the television anyway starts to make sense). This won’t happen, though. It’s much more beneficial for clubs to have a two-thirds empty ground with a few thousand paying to get in than for them to lose that revenue. They could fine clubs for playing under-strength teams in the FA Cup, but it often seems as if the effects of this are overstated anyway. Is the biggest reason why there were empty seats for, say, the match between Stoke City and Arsenal in the last round really because Arsenal weren’t putting their strongest side out?
The biggest single thing that could boost the FA Cup would be to give the fourth Champions League place to the winners of the competition, but the Premier League will never do this unless forced to by UEFA and, while Michel Platini has been said to be keen on this, it seems highly unlikely that they would ever force it upon the Premier League, and the FA are largely powerless to intervene in this arrangement. However, until the fundamental financial imbalances within football are addressed, the Premier League (a competition that only four clubs can conceivably win) and the Champions League (which those same four clubs plus another four or five from the rest of the continent have dominated in recent years) will continue to be the only shows in town, and we will continue to be treated to the almost perverse spectacle of almost everybody – fans included – believing that finishing in fourth or fifteenth place in the league is more important than winning a cup.