Is the FA Cup dying?

Empty stands do little to cheer the Blackburn Rovers players during their FA Cup match against Manchester City at the Ewood Park Stadium.-AP

The Cup must be seen as the very mother of competitive football. In its earliest years it was dominated by teams formed by former privileged public schoolboys. In 1873 and 1874 Oxford University lost the final. Then the time would come of the Lancashire professionals. The Football League would be formed only as an 1880s afterthought. But now the Premier League is dominant. By Brian Glanville.

“It is now the sport of nations, and today the apotheosis of football is the Cup Final.” So, way back in 1949, wrote Geoffrey Green, the distinguished soccer journalist, in his “History of FA Cup.” Compare and contrast this with the recent words of Alan Hansen, once an elegant centre back with Liverpool and Scotland, now a leading commentator in print and on television. “The FA Cup is a shadow of the competition it once was and I seriously fear for its future unless it has a big revamp. It was once something magical and the semi-final was the most highly pressurised game I ever played in my life. The prize you were playing for, with a trip to Wembley, was so unbelievable and the build-up seemed to go on forever.”

Hansen’s doom laden words came after the weekend of the traditional 3rd round of the competition, when all the clubs of the two top English League divisions enter the competition. And it is all too true that many of the attendance figures were alarmingly small. Even when Wigan, the very holders of the trophy, played at home to Milton Keynes Dons from the lower ranks, in an embarrassing 3-3 draw. Only a miserable 6960 spectators turned up to watch the game. True, Wigan not only won the Cup last season but were, alas also relegated from the Premiership to the so called Championship, but this figure was derisory.

I was at Southampton to watch a splendidly exciting Cup tie won by the Premiership home side against a gallant Burnley from the division below, 4-3. Just the sort of match which showed the Cup at its best. But a mere 15077 fans were present, barely half the number which less than a week earlier, had seen Southampton outclassed 3-0 by Chelsea. In actual fact the average gate of somewhat over 10,000, a meagre figure in itself, was just marginally higher than the equivalent figure in 2013. While at Old Trafford, the usual massive crowd, this time 73190, saw Manchester United lose to Swansea; and at The Emirates, Arsenal’s win in the historic North London derby against Tottenham Hotspur attracted 59476.

Hansen insists that radical moves must be made, however, if the Cup is to survive. And certainly the words and attitudes of two managers of leading clubs, both former FA Cup winners, were deeply negative. West Ham United’s Sam Allardyce made light of the fact that his team, fighting against relegation, had lost 5-0 to Nottingham Forest, a division below them, fielding a skeleton team consisting largely of young reserves. A few days later, a slightly stronger team crashed 6-0 in the League Cup at Manchester City. Allardyce proclaimed that all that mattered to him was the Premier League and avoiding relegation. The FA Cup came merely third in line. Allardyce you might say has form in such matters. When managing Bolton Wanderers he deliberately put out a weakened team in the FA Cup though it seemed, at the time, that he wanted to concentrate on the Football League Cup. But wonder of wonders, days after crashing in Manchester, he took his team to Cardiff in the Premiership and won 2-0. Did this justify his snubbing of the FA Cup? Hard to decide but his anti-Cup attitude reflected that of the Scottish manager of Aston Villa and former Bayern Munich star Paul Lambert. He was tactless enough to declare that the FA Cup was a hindrance; which brought the wrath of Aston Villa fans down upon him. Villa may not actually have won the Cup since 1957, but they have a long earlier record of success in the competition. And in the event, Villa in their 3rd round home tie were humiliated by Sheffield United from the division below them.

For Alan Hansen, the possible remedy is to abolish Cup replays. And he certainly has a point when, however reluctantly, he emphasises the immense financial importance of the Premiership, where finances have been hugely boosted this season by the entry of British Telecom into the picture. It may well be that only a handful of clubs is capable of achieving the first four Premiership places and thus entry into the European Champions Cup but any and every club involved in what I have called from the first the greed is good league profits immensely.

“With all that money being thrown around,” says Hansen, “I cannot see how it is going to get any better until they scrap replays.” A drawn game says Hansen should be followed by a penalty shootout. The prospect for me is depressing. Penalty shootouts are anathema in my eyes, but they have grown exponentially till, the ultimate anomaly and insult to the game, they now even decide the destiny of World Cup finals. There is nothing organic about them, nothing truly rational. They are simply a crude and arbitrary means of getting a game, however important, out of the way.

Yet for generations the FA Cup was the jewel in the crown of English football. The so called Matthews Final of 1953, when at long last Stanley Matthews, that outside right, the first ever European Footballer of the Year, twice frustrated in the final when playing for Blackpool, at the age of 38 won his medal, in a breathless late victory against, admittedly, a Bolton Wanderers team reduced by injury to ten fit men and unable to resist Matthews’ burst along the by-line and the consequent winning goal.

How bitterly ironic that this huge threat to the competition should come in the very season that the Football Association and the FA Cup are celebrating their 150th anniversary.

The Cup must be seen as the very mother of competitive football. In its earliest years it was dominated by teams formed by former privileged public schoolboys. In 1873 and 1874 Oxford University lost the final. Then the time would come of the Lancashire professionals. The Football League would be formed only as an 1880s afterthought. But now the Premier League is dominant.