Sporting traditions are supposed to die hard but not, it seems, when it comes to the FA Cup, football’s oldest – and greatest – domestic knockout competition.
Last weekend should have been one of the most exciting programmes on the English calendar: the third round of the cup when teams from the top two divisions entered the tournament and a string of hopeful Davids went head-to-head with the game’s Goliaths.
Swansea’s defeat at League Two Oxford United (three divisions apart) aside, there were few upsets though the romance of the cup was preserved when the only non-league team left in the competition, Eastleigh, came within two minutes of knocking out Bolton Wanderers, who may be rooted to the foot of the second-tier Championship but who have won the cup four times in their illustrious history. Little Exeter City, meanwhile, scared the pants off mighty Liverpool.
For clubs like Oxford, Exeter and Eastleigh, the financial rewards of a cup run are inestimable, as is the prestige of gaining a place in annals of this great competition. Yet scandalously, almost everywhere you looked, Premier League managers refused to take the competition seriously, making five, six, seven – sometimes even 10 – changes to their regular line-ups. As if to say, “we just don’t care.”
How depressing, how unjustified, how unedifying.
For those clubs near the top of the table, it was all about not jeopardising a top-four spot that provides Champions League football. For those at the bottom, it was about avoiding relegation. For those in the middle, some kind of spurious argument about gaining stability.
For the vast majority of its history, the third round of the FA Cup has been the one date in the English football season embracing the beauty of unpredictability. Indeed, television promotions flagging up live cup games last weekend used the expression “anything can happen”.
Yet to the big clubs the competition has seemingly become an unwanted distraction. Exeter’s 2-2 draw with Liverpool, whilst a highly creditable result, was against a youthful line-up virtually unrecognisable from the usual Liverpool starting eleven. Swansea’s team, likewise, was shorn of most of its regular players. Wherever you looked, it was the same story.
There were, of course, one or two exceptions. Chelsea, under pressure to capture some kind of silverware with their top-four hopes all but dashed, took few risks against little Scunthorpe United, mindful no doubt of last season’s humiliating cup exit at the hands of Bradford City. Manchester United may have been below par, as so often during this campaign, but they too fielded a strong line-up against League One opposition, recognising the need to remain in the competition in order to restore some kind of pride.
But too many others showed disrespect for a tournament that used to occupy a special place in the collective football consciousness. Too many others were seemingly oblivious to the fact that winning the FA Cup not only builds glory-hunting momentum but also pays back the fans for the their undying loyalty.
Just look at Arsenal. Having not won a trophy for ages and with critics suggesting the club was going into decline, Arsene Wenger steered the Gunners to back-to-back FA cup triumphs. Now look where they are: back among the Premier League title favourites, a classic example of using the cup as a stepping stone to climbing back up the pyramid to where you want to be.
The fact is that the buzz of a cup run alone can have a galvanising effect. It is a massive error of judgement to think otherwise and downplay the tournament’s relevance. I have nothing against coaches making changes to prevent burnout and injury but why not also make them in the occasional league game? The league, after all, goes on for the best part of nine months. The cup takes six games to win.
It is a sign of the times, perhaps, that qualifying for the top four is considered the be-all and end-all. That’s a shame. The FA cup should be sacrosanct for fans of teams who have a genuine chance of winning it. My club, Tottenham Hotspur, haven’t tasted FA glory for a quarter of a century but it should still be a priority. Spurs are on the brink of something special this season under their highly astute manager who has brought through so much exciting young talent, much of it English.
As such, I totally buy into the ambition to have a crack at the Champions League next season and the chance to rub shoulders with the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. It’s every player’s and every fan’s dream. I also completely take on board that it’s a squad game these days and that fringe players need to be given their chance.
But why always in the FA Cup? The bottom line, surely, is that there are only a handful of prizes most clubs have a chance of winning. Some are bigger than others. The FA Cup is right up there. Just ask success-starved fans of Everton, who of all the so-called “big” English top-flight clubs have gone the longest without any silverware at all.
It’s time managers (and one suspects boards of directors) got back to grasping that the FA Cup still matters, not only to the minnows and their moment in the limelight but to the elite too. If only to show that there is life beyond football’s burgeoning wealth. Call me old-fashioned – but surely that’s something worth fighting for.
Andrew Warshaw is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball and was formerly Sports Editor of the European. Contact him at email@example.com