FA Cup romance fading fast

By Paul Gardner

From England -- well, it would be England, the only country to burden the holiday season with a heavy soccer schedule -- we've been getting the usual new year's stories. All that stuff about the marvels of the FA Cup. How the small clubs can upset the big clubs, and how romantic it all is. Exactly a year ago we had Nottingham Forest winning at Manchester City and that was supposed to be virtually miraculous. Of course, Forest was then speedily and unromantically knocked out in the next round.

Never mind. This year, it seems, we've had the beyond-miraculous, with Leeds United winning 1-0 at Manchester United. Phooey. Neither Forest nor Leeds are exactly "small" clubs for a start. And as far as the Leeds win goes, one needs to take a close look at the ManU team that Alex Ferguson put on the field. Hardly the regular starting 11.

For the big clubs, putting out sub-strength teams for FA Cup games has now become the norm. Arsene Wenger did the same thing yesterday for Arsenal against West Ham (who also "rested" some regular starters). Arsenal almost paid the penalty, but was rescued -- so we're told -- by Wenger himself who made two second-half substitutes, sending on regulars Samir Nasri and Abou Diaby, who turned the game around and ensured a 2-1 Arsenal win. (For this master move, Wenger is, inexplicably, being praised. Rather like praising a man for calling the fire brigade after he has clumsily set his own house on fire.)

Wenger made no secret of his intention to belittle the FA Cup, though he didn't put it like that. He simply made it clear that his priority is winning the Premier League. But really, it is not necessary for Wenger or Ferguson, or any of the coaches of the big clubs to say anything. Their actions in selecting what are often close to B teams spread the message loud and clear.

They leave no one in any doubt. The FA Cup is being quite openly downgraded. In fact, for those top teams that are in with a chance of finishing in the top four EPL positions -- and all the Euro money that such a finish brings with it -- the FA Cup is a distraction.

Chelsea's Frank Lampard, coating his words with some nice nostalgic flourishes for bygone cup games, told us flatly that the big clubs -- presumably including Chelsea -- now have "other priorities" and that "the FA Cup is no longer the focal point and highlight of a player's season."

Lampard was talking of the top EPL teams. But his reasoning applies equally, if not more so, to the bottom teams, struggling desperately to maintain their place in the EPL. Which means that around half of the 20 EPL teams have a very good reason -- financial, of course -- for finding FA Cup games an incubus.

There is another massively important point. Anyone who watched any of the televised FA Cup games this weekend can hardly have failed to notice the low caliber of the games. Or the poor crowds at several of them.

What can be done? The chairman of the English Football Supporters' Federation, Malcolm Clarke, appalled by the thought that the cup might become a "third rate competition with very low attendances that nobody was really interested in" has let it be known that "something" should be done.

But what? If the games are unattractive, if the fans prefer to hang on to their money, what -- apart from shepherding those fans into the stadiums and taking their money at gun point -- can be done?

Not much, I would think. Even trying to force clubs to always put out their strongest team is tricky. Recently, Wolves coach Mick McCarthy sent his reserve team to play at ManU -- where they predictably lost 3-0. His reasoning, it was widely assumed, was that his team was going to lose that game anyway; better to rest his starters for upcoming games that they had a chance of winning.

The EPL has the power to fine Wolves, or even to deduct points, either for not putting out its best team, or for the more vague offense of not "acting in good faith to other clubs." But should the EPL be telling coaches which players they can select? Is there really a credible answer to the defense offered by the Wolves' chief executive Jez Moxey that "Mick (McCarthy) picked what he thought was the best side for that match." He also added that the fans who chanted that they wanted their $68 refunded were going to be disappointed. It must surely remain within the coach's judgment to decide on his team line up. And it is clearly the opinion, right now, that cup games do not warrant fielding (though "risking" is the word in the coaches' minds) a full starting 11.

Modern times, and financial considerations, are dictating the demise of the FA Cup. It has had a long run -- this was its 137th year -- but if it has lost its appeal and its "romance," then it will -- sadly, yes -- wither away.

A lesson there for the USSF in this country, which attempts, year after year, to keep alive the increasingly inert-looking body of the U.S. Open Cup. Now in its 97th year, the Open Cup has been given some prestige by attaching to it the name of the greatly esteemed soccer pioneer, Lamar Hunt. Whether that can save it from the fate that seems to await the FA Cup (of which the U.S. version was a direct copy), who knows. But it is pretty clear that both competitions are not viewed, by the big clubs in each country, with delight. Rather they come under the heading of "schedule congestion" and as such are simply asking to be disparaged.


5 comments about "FA Cup romance fading fast".
  1. John Pepple, January 4, 2010 at 11:12 a.m.

    Generally, I agree with Paul Gardner, but he's wrong about the open-cup competition in this country. For too long, the soccer powers in this country have adopted a strategy of telling the soccer haters that soccer is no different from their sports. The obvious response is, "We've already got three sports that we like and we don't need another. Anyway, your sport is boring, unlike our sports."

    Instead, soccer in this country should be promoted as having things the other sports don't have. We have World Cups, and they don't. We have lots of adult amateurs playing, either in pick-up games or on low-level teams; football by contrast is very difficult to play on a casual basis. And finally, we have open-cup tournaments.

    When I've pointed this out to the soccer haters, they don't even know what I'm talking about. The idea of an open cup is so far removed from American culture that I have to explain it to them. Few understand why there are golf and tennis tournaments called "Opens."

    So that is why I would keep the open-cup tournament. It's something we have that the other sports don't have. Also, it's not just romantic. It's democratic. It's giving the little guys a chance to shine. As I recall, a game a decade ago between Newcastle and lowly Stevenage was broadcast not only in England, but in a bunch of other different countries. How many semi-pro players get that kind of attention?

  2. Tom Symonds, January 4, 2010 at 12:53 p.m.

    I would rather retain the US Open Cup and eliminate the artificial SuperLiga and All-Star Game to ease fixture congestion. But the lack of interest in the Open Cup is symptomatic of the problem that the MLS does not have a mechanism to reward success on the field. What does an MLS team get for winning the Open Cup? A place in the CONCACAF Champions League. Oh boy, more fixture congestion, initial matches in empty stadiums against unknown clubs from minnow countries, and eventual elimination at the hands of a Mexican club (MLS's drive for parity insures our best is not competitive with Mexico's best or even average clubs). Without any kind of substantive reward for success on the field (such as higher salary cap, expanded roster, etc.), there's no incentive for MLS clubs to put any emphasis on the Open Cup.

  3. Barry Ulrich, January 4, 2010 at 1:04 p.m.

    Leeds United 1-Man U 0! Didn't we all see Rooney, Berbatov, Giggs, Owen and Neville in the game. Mr. Gardner, I believe Man U wanted to win that game. Nice goal by Leeds. But how many games have you seen where one team completely dominated, out shot the opposing team, yet lost because it failed to put the ball into the net? The scramble near the end of the match could have resulted in a tie, yet Man U couldn't put the ball into the "old onion bag"! Boo hoo. On paper, Man U beats a League 1 team every time. This is why they play the game.

  4. Adam Burrows, January 4, 2010 at 5:47 p.m.

    I think Paul Gardner's attack on the FA Cup is churlish and unwarranted. For whom is the romance fading? For the 72,000 plus who packed Old Trafford for a 3rd round tie? The full house at White Hart Lane for a match against the Posh of Peterborough? The supporters of non-league Forest Green Rovers who hosted Derby County at the their 5000 capacity grounds last year and are one win away from a date with Wigan this year? Was Alex Ferguson's humiliation any less for Manchester United choosing to draw upon its stacked bench (keep in mind that for the top sides, the FA and League Cups offer an opportunity to test, showcase, and shake the rust off talent that can't crack their first elevens)? Was the joy of the 9000 long-suffering Leeds supporters who made the trip to any less for facing Fabio and Valencia? The romance of the FA Cup, like that of baseball's Spring Training, is not the final at Wembley, but the allure of possibility, of a minnow striking down a Goliath, of Leeds toppling mighty Man U on its climb back from the depths, of Barnsley marching through Liverpool and Chelsea on its way to the semifinals in 2008, of 762 teams from every backwater of England imagining an impossible outcome in the heat of August. Plenty enough romance for me.

  5. Clayton Berling, January 4, 2010 at 7:52 p.m.

    Having been close to the game in the USA for more than four decades as the founder of Soccer America, incuding some stints with Calif. State and USSF levels, I was able to observe the "Cup" competition status in all of its variations. Early on it was a struggle at the Amateur and "Open" levels as the higher one got in the competition the more it cost and the less interest from the "general" public, until finally teams would have to drop out or slim down and had virtually no audience. I venture to say that it stayed that way until MLS was drawn into the fray. MLS had little to gain from these games. If you lost, you were humiliated and downgraded the league. If you won, what else should one expect. The result was a slight increase in attendance, a huge increase in costs. The public and the media
    have really called the shots on this. It's a failure, with results relegated to the small type on the score pages. Whatever the English or any other nation does about this competition, it doesn't work here. An occasional
    international game or competition (i.e. SuperLiga), properly promoted and
    scheduled, does work.
    Does this mean that all "cup" competitions or tournaments are useless?
    Of course not, provide they are inexpensive, localized, and no one expects
    more than they are willing to pay for. The USA market prefers league competition; even the college level has potential but needs more promotion
    and tie-in to subsequent professional status. However, even there, the current status is generally limited to an audience of fans of the two contenders. As a sport in our "market", we still have a long way to go.

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