You Can Kill The FA Cup If You Must, But Don’t Blame Us
At eight o’clock this evening, under the watchful eye of the television cameras of the BBC, the Third Round of the FA Cup will get underway as League Two side Exeter City take on Liverpool at St James Park. The scheduling of this tie has not passed without comment, though, and represents yet another affront to match-going supporters in a tournament which seems strangely determined to devalue itself in the public eye. For Liverpool supporters travelling to Merseyside, making the journey to Exeter by train isn’t an option unless they wish to return the next day, and even those who will travel to Devon by car face a round trip of five hundred miles that will involve taking a Friday afternoon off work and returning some time in the small hours of the following morning.
That such a decision should have been taken in this tournament is no great surprise. After all, the FA Cup is the tournament that shifted the kick-off time for its final to a quarter past five in the afternoon in order to try and get a bigger television audience on a Saturday afternoon, even though this in itself makes it exponentially more difficult for supporters for clubs from the north of England to get back home either by public transport or at a reasonable time. This is the tournament the organisers of which allowed Manchester United a year off to travel to South America for world club tournament that made absolutely no difference to a failed bid to host a World Cup finals whatsoever. This is the tournament for which it was considered completely reasonable to use a pink match ball for no apparent reason whatsoever.
The broadcasters are no better, of course. The BBC has shown its contempt for anything other than securing a decent share of the Friday night television audience by selecting the Exeter City vs Liverpool match for a Friday night, and BT Sport have made a selection matches which seem to indicate that all that they are interested in is the biggest available clubs, no matter who they’re playing. So it is that two of the live matches selected by the subscription channel are between Manchester United and Sheffield United, and between Chelsea and Scunthorpe United. These are two matches that could conceivably provide surprise results, but this is almost certainly not the reason why these matches have been selected. They’ve been selected for the same reason that the biggest clubs are shamelessly picked, no matter who they’re playing. They’re “box office.” They’ll guarantee a television audience, of some description.
The third leg in this triumvirate of disrespect is two-headed – the Football League and the Premier League. Now, it may be mere coincidence that both of these were scheduled, but it just so happened that the Football League put the first leg of the League Cup semi-finals on the week before FA Cup Third Round Weekend, while the Premier League scheduled a full round of matches for the week after, thereby tying the hands of top flight managers who might have been umming and ahhing over whether to play a weakened team in the Third Round of the FA Cup or not.
It has been suggested that the Premier League most likely scheduled a round of matches for next week because the other major European domestic leagues remain on their winter breaks for now, but it’s difficult to imagine any organisation which scheduled league matches for the day of the FA Cup final last year not enjoying the opportunity to kick the Cup in the balls again this year. With Premier League survival being worth more than ever, few even expect managers of clubs in that division to take the tournament that seriously any more, but there is something somewhat galling about the suspicion that rival tournaments might be scheduling against the best interests of the oldest football competition in the world.
So, kick-off times are all over the place, the biggest teams in the competition have more important matches either side of the competition, half of the televised matches are nowhere near the most interesting in the tournament, and the match ball for last year’s competition was an overgrown testicle, but if crowds are low for matches it will be supporters that get the blame. It is a supreme irony that a Football Association and broadcasters who will spend the entire weekend doubtlessly ramming the words “heritage”, “tradition” and “romance” down our collective throats over the course of the next three days or so are amongst those who seem to be delighting in dragging the tournament into the gutter. We’re still interested, but it does become increasingly difficult with each passing year.
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