By Paul Gardner
A weekend of English FA Cup games, it seems to me, has done nothing to showcase all that glamour and excitement that we are told, relentlessly, is the hallmark of this oldest-of-all soccer competitions.
Those who feel, as I certainly do, that this is an outdated tournament hopelessly adrift in the modern game, got plenty of ammunition from the weekend’s games to support our opinion.
For a start, there was the statement made during the week by Paul Lambert, the coach at Aston Villa. In the mildest possible way, Lambert suggested that, for Premier League clubs, the FA Cup was a distraction from what really mattered ... which was making sure of retaining a place in the Premier League. He felt confident that other EPL coaches would agree: “If anyone says any differently then I am not so sure they will be telling the truth because the Premier League is the most vital thing ...”
This is a pretty clear statement of the truth of the matter, a truth that is especially harsh for clubs -- like Aston Villa right now -- that is struggling at the bottom of the league, with the danger of relegation hanging over them.
But, in England, criticizing the FA Cup is akin to saying nasty things about the royal family -- you’re attacking a hallowed national institution. People spring quickly, automatically, to defend it. Some of the other EPL coaches were heard from. Two of them said, unequivocally, that Lambert had got it wrong, and that they love the FA Cup. That was the view of Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho, two coaches who don’t have to worry about relegation: Arsenal is top of the EPL, Chelsea is third.
From other, less well-placed, coaches there was the usual knee-jerk praise for the cup -- accompanied by the reluctant admission that Lambert has a point, and vague hints that something ought to be done about the schedule congestion that the cup causes.
Having to cope with the extra games that the FA Cup brings is not a problem for the rich clubs. Like Arsenal and Chelsea. They have enough top players on their rosters to put out strong teams while resting their stars.
Things are different for lesser clubs. What could the West Ham coach Sam Allardyce do for Sunday’s game at second division Nottingham Forest? With his club in next to last place in the EPL, and beset by injuries, Allardyce had little option but to field a team of youngsters -- which duly got clobbered 5-0. That can be seen as exactly the FA Cup glamour of which so much is made. For Forest, maybe. But it is a hollow sort of glamour, one certainly not appreciated by West Ham, more or less forced to participate with a below-strength team.
Lambert no doubt felt the sting of the criticism that came his way. He felt it necessary to clarify his position: “I never demeaned the competition one bit. I respect its history and I respect what the competition is about.” Possibly to prove his devotion to the Cup, he selected pretty nearly his strongest team for the home game against third division Sheffield United. More glamour. For Sheffield, that is, which pulled off just the sort of upset -- a 2-1 win -- that the FA Cup “is all about.”
The glamour will be short-lived. Neither Forest nor Sheffield will win the FA Cup. Of the 69 tournaments since World War II, only three have been won by second-division clubs. The last time it happened was in 1980, before most of today’s pro players in England were born.
For Lambert and Allardyce, the weekend humiliations could mean the axe. And it must be recognized that this would be the direct result of not being a wealthy club, of simply not having enough money to pay star players to sit on the bench. Lambert chose to use a lineup that was close to his strongest team -- but would he have done that if he had not felt beleaguered and if he could call on experienced reserves? Allardyce, confronted with injuries to six key players and what he saw as the need to rest others for EPL games -- what he, correctly for sure, saw as more importantEPL games -- had to go with the youngsters.
In short, money is insidiously eroding the glamour. The FA Cup has always, and logically, favored the big clubs. Now, it favors the big, super-rich clubs. For the small clubs, the dream is no longer the glory of a Wembley Stadium final. That has been replaced by a financial dream -- of being favored with a home game against one of the mega-clubs. A one-off payday with a packed stadium and probably with increased ticket prices. And if the small club’s small stadium proves too small for the demand, then the game can be shifted to another club’s larger stadium. It may even be shifted to its opponent’s stadium. With such an arrangement, the small club’s chance of pulling off an upset win virtually vanishes ... but a monetary bonanza is assured.
There is also the quality of the soccer to be considered. The gap between the haves and the have-nots in the sport has widened. While the top EPL clubs are playing some of the most sophisticated and skillful soccer in the world, you don’t have to venture too far into the second division -- the so-called Championship -- to encounter an alarmingly primordial version of the sport.
On Saturday, for example, you could have watched fourth division Rochdale play host to second-division Leeds. Yes, there was history and charm here. Rochdale, a pro club since 1907, has never won anything. Its tiny 10,000 capacity stadium, built in 1920, looks much as it must have looked then. Nothing fancy here, certainly nothing rich. Not in money terms. But nostalgia counts for something, and the television shots were rich in that emotion. Could these shots reallybe live, was this really England 2014?
It was all wrong. But delightfully wrong. The flavor was from the 1940s. And the soccer confirmed the antiquated atmosphere, a rude, rustic version of the sport that seemed to be decades behind the times, almost like a re-enactment of yesterday’s game. Glamorous it was not.
Which is bad enough. But how much better was the soccer in other games, the ones featuring the big clubs? Where the Rochdale game had been all commitment with a smattering of skill, Manchester City’s 1-1 tie with Blackburn Rovers gave us a ManCity team with plenty of skill, but a curious lack of intensity. The same could be said of both teams in Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Tottenham.
Glamour, passion, excitement -- the words that are supposed to typify the FA Cup were in short supply this weekend. This is not supposed to be what happens in FA Cup games. They are one-off, winner-takes-all games, there should be no tactical caution involved in these games. But the rules call for a tied game to be replayed -- at the stadium of the team that traveled for the first game. So playing for a tie on the road, or later for a shootout win, surely enters into the coaches’ thinking.
But they’ll not be too bothered about all that up in Rochdale. Sunday was a great day for Rochdale, the underdogs, who beat Leeds 2-0. Their reward is a home game in the next round against either Macclesfield or Sheffield Wednesday -- neither of them a club registering weightily on the glamour scales.
The FA Cup has become an anachronism. It has reached the stage when all that glittering history has become a burden. What was once the most important soccer tournament in the world is now a struggling event that has to rely increasingly upon the wiles of marketing and PR to keep up the pretense that it matters.
In attempting to maintain that charade, it is causing serious problems for Premier League clubs. Soccer has moved on since the ball rolled in the first FA Cup back in 1871. The soccer world now really does embrace the whole world. To the top clubs, what happens in Germany and Spain and Brazil and Argentina is infinitely more important that what goes on in Rochdale.
While the FA Cup can still provide small clubs with moments of glory, even to them it matters more as a possible source of windfall income. It has little to offer the big clubs -- the glory and the money ($2 million? peanuts!) are paltry set alongside what can come from the Premier League, and the reward to the winners of a place in the Europa League impresses no one. A place in the UEFA Champions League is the one that matters.
The temptation is to call the FA Cup simply one tournament too many. But that phrase is surely more applicable to the Capital One Cup that is widely viewed as a “poor man’s” FA Cup. Abolition of the Capital One would certainly help ease the schedule congestion. But not too much. The big clubs have little respect for the Capital One, and do not feel under any pressure to take it seriously by fielding their full teams. Arsene Wenger recently downgraded it to almost nothing when he remarked that winning it would not mark the end of his club’s eight-year trophy drought.
I think a lengthy hibernation period might be the best thing for the FA Cup. Then, one distant day ... because I have this fear -- or maybe it is a desire -- that some day the entire over-financed structure of international soccer will simply collapse into a spectacular bankruptcy; and amid the wreckage on that far off day, what is this strange unfashionable creature rising from the dust to beckon us back to the joys of simpler times, to the days when soccer was a sport, not a big business?
But we’ve learned that you can’t go back. There is no going home. That’s not the way life works, is it? For the foreseeable future it is onward but not necessarily upward with the cash-drenched Premier League and the UEFA Champions League.