The FA Cup just ain't what it used to be

By Paul Gardner

This past weekend has been, you may have noticed, the Big FAC Weekend. By FAC I mean England’s FA Cup, and FAC has been the name of the game, certainly on Fox Soccer Channel. The FAC has been praised and exalted to the skies, all of this delivered in breathless, panting tones by FSC’s coterie of Brits and wanna-be Brits.

Yes there is something different and potentially thrilling about the FAC -- it’s an open tournament, any old club can enter, however small -- and with a bit of luck a small club can survive the early rounds and may end up playing against -- even beating -- one of the legendary clubs. Which is a lovely, lovely scenario.

We had some of that this weekend, with little Crawley Town -- not even in the four divisions of the Football League! -- playing at all-conquering Manchester United. And third division Leyton Orient hosting mighty Arsenal.

Before we got to those games, however, the FAC started off the weekend with Chelsea vs. Everton, which was not a good game to start anything with. A dreadful FAC game between two Premier League clubs, which droned on through overtime into the dreaded penalty kicks, from which Everton emerged as the winner. Or, more accurately, as the less bad of two awful teams. And the less said the better.

This was decidedly disappointing, because the jolly FSC mob had been promising all sorts of wonderful excitement from these FAC games. Next up came Birmingham City vs. Sheffield Wednesday, Premier League vs. third division, so this was a bit closer to the heroic David vs. Goliath matchups that we kept being told about.

If anything this was even worse. Birmingham romped away to a quick 2-0 lead, after which -- or even before which -- nothing of any interest happened, from the soccer point of view. It was dire stuff. If agricultural tackles are your thing, there was much to be admired, especially in the 22nd minute, when Sheffield’s James O’Connor rammed into Alexander Hleb. Not to worry said the Brit commentators -- of course, just as they always do -- nothing serious. Hleb left on a stretcher, while the commentators admitted that just maybe it was more serious than they thought. Nothing more was seen of Hleb. No contest here -- Birmingham ended up 3-0 winners.

Then we got the prize exhibit of the FAC weekend. Little (we heard a lot of that word) Crawley Town challenging ManU at Old Trafford. This was, in theory, a really intriguing game, one that pulls out all the emotional stops in support of the underdogs. But this was never David vs. Goliath -- ManU backed out of that possibility by fielding a reserve team. Just a week ago ManU had played ManCity and from that lineup, the one used for a crucial game, only two players were on the field against Crawley.

Sure, Crawley made a game of it, against a largely dysfunctional, even nervous bunch of ManU subs, but ManU took it 1-0. That was Saturday. Yesterday came another potential David vs. Goliath game -- which was also torpedoed before it started, because Arsenal, like ManU, chose to field a shadow team. From the starting 11 that beat Barcelona in midweek, only one player survived! Another depressingly dreary game until with only a couple of minutes left, Orient scored to tie it up at 1-1. For the short remaining time, the crowd, which had become almost somnolent, burst into furious noise and, yes, this really was exciting.

As the game finished, commentator Martin Tyler remarked, “This is what the FA Cup is all about.” We were whisked back to the studio where Warren Barton told us, “This is what the FA Cup is all about.” Seconds later, Kevin Costigan chimed in with, “This is what the FA Cup is all about.”

I had watched nearly five hours of utterly uninspired soccer before, for a few minutes, I got to watch what was the real thing. There were three other FAC games that I did not watch -- and I have every reason to believe that they were all equally barren. Just listen: Stoke vs. Brighton, Fulham vs. Bolton -- both of which managed to look woeful even in the highlights, and ManCity vs. Notts County, where the poor little Notts Davids got slaughtered 5-0.

What all of those games add up to is this: the so-called glamour and magic of the FAC is a thing of the past. It has been overtaken by a different world, a different society, a different game. And, of course, a different set of values. The over-riding value now is money. And that means the European championship.

Sadly. I say that with real feeling, as I grew up with the FAC in its glory days, when it really was a major competition -- indeed in many ways, even without all that David/Goliath stuff, many fans of those days rated winning the FAC a bigger achievement than winning the League.

This is so obviously not the case any more, that I’m stupefied that the FSC crew should try to con everyone into believing that nothing has changed. Do they think we don’t know that ManU reserves vs. Crawley Town is quite different from ManU vs Crawley? That it makes a mockery of that cherished David-Goliath fable? That we don’t know that ManU and Arsenal put out shadow teams because the FAC is no longer a major trophy?

It is even suggested -- though stoutly denied by the very coaches who put out reserve teams -- that the FAC is a damn nuisance, merely a competition that clutters the calendar. Does Arsenal need another game in its already crowded schedule -- which is what they’ve now got, with a replay against Leyton.

The scenes at the end of the Arsenal vs. Leyton game were heart-warming, as the minnows celebrated their moment of glory. But that scenario happens so rarely nowadays, and anyway has been so devalued by the attitude of the big clubs, that it makes no sense to keep repeating that “this is what the FA Cup is all about.” Not any more, it isn’t.

10 comments about "The FA Cup just ain't what it used to be ".
  1. Marc Delio, February 21, 2011 at 8:34 a.m.

    The sadder part of the FAC is that the competition is so diverse that when the Giants like Man U and Arsenal decide to field a true Premier team they will certainly trounce any lower level team leaving only another Premier level competition in the end. If Man U and Arsenal were to play their reserve squads all the way through the competition then I respect their managers for doing so, but we can be certain we will see completely different squads in the later rounds of the FAC!

  2. Amos Annan, February 21, 2011 at 9:56 a.m.

    It is all about perception and interest. If the media (like writers at SoccerAmerica) keep downgrading the FA Cup, that is how the fans and teams will view it.

  3. Albert Harris, February 21, 2011 at 10:44 a.m.

    Amos, do you really think the writers at SA have that kind of power. At the very least, I doubt that the teams are concerned with what the writers here think, and I imagine most fans are like me in that we accept that Paul writes an opinion column which we are free to agree or disagree with as we choose. So far as I am concerned, I think the FA cup would regain some of its previous relevance (but not all, it is about the money now and European competition will always take priority) if the League Cup were disposed of. That is the true fixture clogger and the height of modern day irrelevance. One man's opinion!

  4. Gus Keri, February 21, 2011 at 10:53 a.m.

    Paul: You wrote first: "ManCity vs. Notts County, where the poor little Notts Davids got slaughtered 5-0" and then: "ManU and Arsenal put out shadow teams because the FAC is no longer a major trophy". Make up your mind my friend. Did they field a strong team and slaughter or weakened team and be disrespectful?

  5. Ade Harrison, February 22, 2011 at 10:42 a.m.

    I have to admit I enjoy reading the output from Paul Gardner, his blurred view of our game is most entertaining.

    Fans of football teams in the lower divisions in England live for that one day at Old Trafford or the Emirates, regardless of the result. How many more fans will Crawley have gained for what was brilliant performance even against a second string Man U side?

    The romance over the FA cup will always be lost across the Alantic, you have Warren Barton presenting it for heavens sake.

    And its extra time not overtime Paul, keep your twisted scoccer output coming....golden

  6. Mike Gaynes, February 22, 2011 at 11:36 a.m.

    Dreadful, depressing, dreary -- Gardner's adjectives about the FA Cup games are a perfect example of the pot calling the kettle black. No three words could better describe Gardner's pointless prose.

  7. Talley Berry, February 22, 2011 at 12:40 p.m.

    Mr. Gardner is always wrong about everything. "Wrong" is temporary for most people; he has made it a lifestyle. I like getting "Soccer on TV" or I would long ago have canceled my SA subscription to avoid seeing these ridiculous articles every day, though I must admit that reading this tripe every morning vaccinates me against the ignorance of everybody I meet each day, whose Wrongness is child's play next to the practiced absurdity of Mr. Gardner's writing. 
         First he lampoons the FSC crew (who I agree are terrible) for promising excitement from a Chelsea-Everton game that went to extra time, finally decided on penalties after Lampard's ET goal was cancelled out by an excellent last-minute Baines free kick. I can't imagine how anyone who wasn't hoping desperately to see a boring game (Mr. Gardner, for example, who already knew what he wanted to write) can have found this game dull. 
         Then there is the David-Goliath section, which contradicts itself and makes blatantly ridiculous statements. As someone pointed out, you can't criticize both the reserve-team approach of United and the 5-0 approach of City. But let's look at the argument about Arsenal's side. It was composed almost entirely of full internationals, many of whom (Chamakh, Arshavin, Rosicky, Bendtner, Song, Sagna) are star men for their national teams and play regularly in the Premier League (as do Denilson and Squillaci). Their absence from Arsenal's last match is called squad rotation. Does Mr. Gardner really think Arsenal are not interested in winning the FA Cup after six trophy-less years? Sir Alex and Arsene Wenger aren't trying to throw matches; they are playing teams they think will win matches. 
         "It is even suggested...that the FAC is a damn nuisance, merely a competition that clutters the calendar. Does Arsenal need another game in its already crowded schedule"; convenient use of the passive tense, as it would be hard to find someone to pin that statement on. Arsenal certainly do not need another game, which is why Wenger put out a strong team to try to win the match. But he would rather have another game than have lost outright, which is also why he put out a strong team to win the match. Chelsea and Everton didn't put out weakened teams. Why? Because they, like Arsenal and United, put out a team they thought could win a match they honestly wanted to win. United play reserve teams against weak UCL competition, too. Does that mean Sir Alex doesn't care about the Champions League? Of course not. It means he isn't interested in having Paul Scholes wear himself out against a team Darron Gibson can beat. 
         I can't wait to see how bad tomorrow's article is. 

  8. Ade Harrison, February 22, 2011 at 2:31 p.m.

    Talley Berry - best post ever

  9. Tom Enone, February 22, 2011 at 6:49 p.m.

    My overall impression is that the FA Cup is making a bit of a comeback. Don't kill it off yet.

  10. James Froehlich, February 24, 2011 at 11:05 a.m.

    All these people who hate Paul Gardner just keep on reading him -- wonder if it's like the moron who keeps hitting himself on the head because it feels so good when he stops !!!

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications