By Matty Lawrence
The FA Cup really isn’t a competition of note any more.
Hold on, hold on, before you jump two-footed down my throat I am talking about a competition of any note to most of the teams in the top two divisions. Because, let’s be honest that’s all that the sponsors and FA really care about. You know, the teams who pull in the cash and the viewing figures, because the ‘magic’ of the FA Cup really doesn’t pay the bills.
Honestly, there aren’t many of us who are still glued to the TV hoping that Sutton Utd will beat Leeds Utd on the plastic at Gander Green Lane. And even fewer of us remember that momentous performance when the same part-timers knocked out Coventry City of the top tier of English football in 1989. That’s largely due to the fact that the tie was played in the era BS (Before Sky): most football aficionado’s having forgotten that football existed before Rupert Murdoch came along and turned the game into a money-making machine with scant regard for the supporters.
Nowhere is this statement more obvious than in the modern day FA Cup. Or the FA reserve Cup, as so many teams regard it.
Don’t get me wrong; I personally love the fact that two non-league teams (Sutton Utd and Lincoln City) have progressed through to the Fifth Round. Yes, both teams are finally getting the exposure they deserve in terms of TV coverage, yet still they have been given the dawn and dusk shifts: Lincoln in the early slot on Saturday and Sutton in the late game on Monday. For goodness sake, the FA and TV companies are still struggling to give these two glorious, little clubs the exposure they deserve.
What do we get instead? Blackburn vs Manchester Utd in the prime-time 4.15pm (GMT) slot on Sunday. OK, the Manchester Utd fans may give the game some attention, but Blackburn fans have been, through no fault of their own, swallowed up within the apathy surrounding their club. I doubt Ewood Park will even sell out, let alone claim decent viewing figures: certainly in the UK.
The old, romantic football fan is still desperate to witness a new Ronnie Radford, Micky Thomas, or that monumental Lawrie Sanchez near post header at Wembley (google them kids!!), but the millennial football fans seeks out only Premier League or Champions League glory.
The FA Cup, I fear, has gone the way of the Monty Python parrot. There are numerous examples of teams treating this majestic competition with disdain, but let’s just focus on this season.
As I sit here at the keyboard, the fourth round replay between Leicester City and Derby County is flickering away in the background. Leicester have made 10 changes from their weekend league fixture and Derby County have made eight. I consider this an absolute liberty, and if either of these two highly experienced managers (Steve McClaren and Claudio Ranieri) have the audacity to insinuate anything other than that they are treating this match with contempt, then they are trying to imply we are all fools….and, yes, most of us do remember your Dutch accent Schteve, so don’t try it on with us.
I do have a touch of sympathy with the two managers who both have other, more pressing concerns. Ranieri needs to keep EPL football at Leicester City for the 2017/18 season (not forgetting Champions League games looming on the horizon) and McClaren is desperate to get Derby County promoted into the EPL (they currently sit three points off the play-offs). The money at stake in the EPL far outweighs any glory that raising the FA Cup trophy at Wembley in May will bring; shame that this may be.
Liverpool are another team with a fine history in the FA Cup who are now treating the competition with little more than a shrug of the shoulders. They barely scraped by Plymouth Argyle in the third round and then suffered the ignominy of losing at Anfield to Wolverhampton Wanderers in the fourth….Wolves being an exceptionally mediocre Championship team at best.
My old team, Millwall, knocked out EPL opposition in both the third and fourth rounds. They first beat Bournemouth and then Watford with an aggregate score of 4-0 and showed that League One teams are more than a match for lower Premier League reserve sides: something that has been proven time and time again.
So why do managers care less? Simply, because there is no incentive to take the FA Cup any more seriously. More importantly, there is no punishment for fielding these ridiculously weakened teams.
We all know that the solution is for the FA to stop pandering, as always, to the bigger clubs demands and take some forthright action. All clubs should be forced to play at least 50% of the outfield players that started the previous league fixture. This still gives every team the opportunity to change up their goalkeeper and up to five outfield players: clear, simple, effective and a fair balance for everybody involved.
Unless we do this, or come up with a similar solution, then, just like John Cleese’ stiff Norwegian Blue, it’s RIP FA Cup.
“The plumage don’t enter into it; it’s stone dead.”