Tonight sees the third round of the worlds oldest cup competition get under way. Recent years have not been too kind to the FA Cup- the competition no longer represents the pinnacle of the club game with the increasingly powerful Premier League and the expanded Champions league now seen as the major prizes for England’s elite clubs, whilst the Cup has struggled to redefine itself.
Broadcasters haven’t helped- the terrestrial networks always drip their coverage in nostalgia: I guarantee the opening credits of tonight’s games will feature yet again shots of Ronnie Radford’s goal against Newcastle, Ricky Villa’s dribble and Keith Houchen’s header. This sort thing works well in the World Cup because it’s held once every 4 years, with the FA Cup it’s becoming tiresome.
The Cup has also struggled to adapt to the times- every time the format is changed (for example adopting penalties in the later stages) there’s a storm of criticism in the press even though many of the same journalists demand a winter break and bemoan English ineptitude in penalty shoot outs, it’s odd.
Then of course there’s the practice of playing weakened teams in the Cup. Top sides prioritize the Premier & Champions Leagues whilst managers and chairmen of the Premier Leagues strugglers are petrified of relegation and the Championship’s elite want promotion at all costs.
The bigger clubs can argue their squads are so big they can still put out strong sides whilst resting their stars, the smaller fry of the division can’t. The argument that survival is more important than winning the Cup to directors but not fans is best summed up by Wigan’s Cup triumph and subsequent relegation in 2013- you’d be hard pressed to find a Wigan fan who’d swap that cup win for a perennial 16th placed Premier League finish- the money men would beg to differ.
This year however could be very different as the game really needs an exciting FA Cup. The reason of course is Manchester City’s domination of the Premier League. It’s hardly fair to blame Pep Guardiola or his team for their gargantuan lead at the top of the table whilst their football has at times been incredible and the league is serving up plenty of good games- as illustrated by 2 entertaining London derbies this week. But there’s again an absence of drama when a team has the league title completely sewn by the end of March as will likely be the case and unless you support a club in the mix why would you care who finishes 4th or wins the ‘race for 7th.’
With the League title out of reach the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Spurs and Arsenal need a trophy to make the season a success and the FA Cup offers them all the best chance, it’ll be particularly important for Messrs Klopp and Pochetinno who are both still searching for their first trophy in England. Meanwhile with Premier League safety near guarantee dark horses like Everton, Leicester & Watford can prioritise cup success.
Cup football is exciting because anything can happen on the day, the biggest favourites can have an off day (take Chelsea in last years final) and City will start from the same position as everyone else. The Cup ride starts with a Merseyside derby- we could be in for quite the rollercoaster.