FA Cup under siege

Ironically it was money which moved the original professional clubs to look beyond the FA Cup all those years ago, since whatever its glamour, it wasa knock-out affair as indeed it remains and once you were knocked out there was nothing to play but friendlies yielding scant financial returns.

"The FA Cup is a fantastic competition. We should stand up for it," says Harry Redknapp.   -  REUTERS

The third round of the Football Association Cup, when all the leading clubs enter the tournament, was at once fascinating and alarming. Fascinating, because of the traditional shocks and surprises and the giant-killing. Worrying, because so many clubs put out weakened sides, clearly putting heavy emphasis on the Premier League and its huge financial rewards to its successful competitors — and even to those who don’t challenge for a top place. Seeing the historical Cup as a romantic sideshow at least, an economic sideshow in which, alas, it is better for a club to save several or even many of its star players for the financial realities of what, from its very foundation, I termed the ‘Greed is Good’ league. The romance of this great competition, the first of them all since its foundation in 1872, is beyond all dispute. But these are unromantic times in which money talks with a loud, harsh voice.

Ironically it was money which moved the original professional clubs to look beyond the FA Cup all those years ago, since whatever its glamour, it was a knock-out affair as indeed it remains and once you were knocked out there was nothing to play but friendlies yielding scant financial returns.

Harry Redknapp, who won the FA Cup Final of 2008 at Wembley Stadium with his Portsmouth team against Cardiff City, launched a bitter and distressed attack on what has been happening to the competition following the third round matches of the Saturday and Sunday weekend in January.

He echoed my own word, greed, in his tirade against the clubs which traduce the competition with their weakened sides and spoke of how much the Final itself had meant to him and his family from boyhood. It was the same with the Sunderland manager Sam Allardyce, incensed that the Premier League should schedule a whole host of fixtures in midweek just days after the third round of the Cup had been played (in fact despite the huge amount of travelling imposed on his relegation fighting club, it all came up roses when they went to Swansea and beat an opponent reduced to 10 men 4-2.)

Three of those precious goals, two of which were arguably offside, went to the experienced striker Jermain Defoe, who Allardyce didn’t use the previous Saturday in their Cup game at Arsenal, which I reported. A game, in which, though they lost it 3-1, Sunderland rose far above their lowly League status, led 1-0 and nearly 2-1 when even without Jermain, Fletcher hit the Gunners’ bar.

Harry was vehement. Allardyce cooled down somewhat after the game he was dreading at Swansea turned into a lucky victory. Defoe, the quick little veteran striker whom he kept on the bench at Arsenal, returned to score three goals, two of which were blatantly offside but allowed by an inept rookie referee who also expelled a Swansea player for no good reason.

As for Harry Redknapp, he recalled those Cup Final days of sitting with his family before a small black and white screen television, relishing the long build up as well as the actual game, before condemning the profusion of Premier League fixtures which followed so hot on the heels of the third round ties and will do so again after the fourth round.

“It is something that should change next year,” he says, “because the FA Cup is such a fantastic competition. We should stand up for it, it has an unbelievable history. The Final was the game we grew up with in the fifties and sixties… If you were a football mad family like us, the highlight of our year was to watch the FA Cup Final on television… We grew up with that. It was tradition, it was special, it was the competition and it has been devalued. European football has become more important and bigger. The money came in from the Premier League.

“Relegation has been made to feel like the kiss of death because of the money you are losing. It takes over completely and so I have sympathy with the majority of the managers. When they are appointed, the priority from the owners is usually either to stay up or get into the Champions League. Most of the Premier clubs are playing for that this season… At the end of the season you are not going to get a pat on the back from people saying, ‘Well done, good year, we got to the quarter-final or semi-final of the Cup but got relegated.”

Modestly Harry, a popular but somewhat erratic outside-right in his day with West Ham United, father of Jamie, an accomplished England midfielder, does not mention his own FA Cup triumph when managing then humble Bournemouth of the third division. I was there on that memorable South Coast day to see them knock out mighty Manchester United. And, as I came away from the ground, who should come out of the throng to greet me but Peter McParland, the Northern Irish international left-winger whose dubious charge had, in the 1957 Final, broken the cheekbone of the Manchester United ’keeper Ray Wood, obliging United to play on — no subs then — with 10 men, McParland himself by a deep irony scoring the two goals which gave Aston Villa the Cup.

As for this year’s third round, shocks abounded. Swansea City made 10 changes for their visit to Oxford United of the fourth League division. Their defence was torn apart by the inspirational midfield play of a new star, the 23-year-old midfielder, Kemar Roofe, who joined them after long frustrating years with West Bromwich Albion who had him from boyhood, constantly loaned him out elsewhere and now must watch his smoke. He and his brother outside football design clothing on sewing machines.

Liverpool took a team of young reserves to another fourth division team in Exeter City and were lucky to get away with a draw. Leicester made eight changes for their visit to Spurs who held back their two young star attackers Harry Kane and Dele Alli till late in the game but were lucky to draw through a dubious penalty converted by Kane. As for Sunderland, one remembers all too well how Allardyce, when manager of Bolton Wanderers, deliberately fielded weakened teams in the FA Cup to preserve his chances in the League.

Bolton? They now struggle for financial survival and so nearly fell out of the Cup just managing a draw on the ground of non-League Eastleigh.