Where Did The Magic of the FA Cup go?
Tradition – A specific custom or practice of long standing, (Collins Dictionary).
Though still the most broadcasted domestic football Cup final worldwide it cannot be denied the FA Cup has lost its spark and magic of previous years, mainly through breaking its traditions. The youth of today will never cherish the competition like everyone once did. Can it ever fully regain it’s magic? Where did it lose it in the first place? Let’s review.
Wembley’s Redevelopment and it staging the Semi Finals
Wembley Stadium had been the location of the FA Cup final since 1923. In the year 2000 however, Wembley went through redevelopment meaning that the Cup finals between 2001 & 2006 were played at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales. In 2003, the FA made the decision to play the semi finals at Wembley and this came into action in 2008. The decision was made to help financially as major debts had been accumulated during the reconstruction. This immediately took away the prestige of the Wembley final. The exclusivity of seeing players at Wembley had been watered down. The tradition of the Cup took another blow. Fans were enraged. The days of travelling to neutral grounds like Anfield, Old Trafford and Villa Park for semi finals were no more.
There had already been a stand made by the Football Supporters’ Federation (FSF) in 2005 about the semi finals then being played at the Millennium Stadium. At the time the FSF Chairman Malcolm Clarke stated that, ‘I’m delighted the FA have listened to the supporters. We’ve always thought it was wrong that semi finals should be played at the same venue as the final’. He also went on to add, ‘Most supporters who’ve visited Cardiff for the Cup final have really enjoyed the experience and the hospitality. To ask fans to make this trip twice in one season is too much though. It also devalues the occasion of the final itself’, (fsf.org.uk).
To make it worse there previously was no guarantee you might be able to get a ticket should your team even reach the final as less seats are allocated for supporters than there are for the semi final. With fans disgruntled at this, last year supporter organisations led by FSF campaigned requesting that the numbers of tickets allocated to the fans of the finalists was increased. They were successful in their appeal and the original 25,000 seats for each finalist increased to 28,732, an increase of 71% to 80% of available tickets, (fsf.org.uk).
The FA Cup final had always kicked off at 3pm on a Saturday. The Daily Mail reported that TV companies lobbied for the change to the traditional kick off time due to it suiting families whom were likely to be out on a Saturday afternoon, (dailymail.co.uk). Really? Wherever and whenever this survey or questionnaire took place, no one asked my family. Many would love to see the statistical evidence. If your intention were to watch the FA Cup final, then why exactly would you be out somewhere else when it’s on? Anyone who watches football from other countries also knows that this change of time can provide a clash with Cup finals or league games from abroad.
For example, 2014 was the first year I myself completely abandoned the FA Cup final altogether. The 5.15pm kick off time between Arsenal & Hull City clashed with the conclusion of the Spanish title race between Barcelona & Atletico Madrid. As I expected Arsenal to win comprehensively I had no interest. The conclusion in Spain was far more significant. If the final had started at 3 the problem would not have arisen.
So let’s picture this scenario with the FA Cup final now kicking off at 5.30pm: imagine one of the finalists are from Newcastle (the northernmost team in the Football League). Just say the final goes to extra time and then on to a penalty shootout, you could be looking at the final not finishing until after 8.15pm. If the team from up north were the victor, and fans stayed on for the celebrations, you could then be looking at a 9pm departure. The detriment is evident. In the final in 2013 the Daily Mirror reported that fans of Wigan Athletic were outraged as the final’s 5.15pm kick off time meant they could not catch the last train back to the North West on the day of the final, (mirror.co.uk). This again makes you think what families did they actually ask about what they do with their Saturdays.
Teams just do not take the FA Cup as seriously as they used to and the stature of the tournament has taken an unruly bashing because of it. Whether it is teams at the top of the table who may be challenging also in Europe or teams trying to gain European qualification through the League, teams have year by year not made the Cup a priority. Some managers go as far as making 10 or 11 changes from their last league game when it comes to an FA Cup tie, something we had more associated with the other Cup competition in England, the League Cup.
Teams fighting relegation are more often than not now fielding weakened teams to avoid making the drop. The catalyst for struggling clubs may now be the FA Cup which is demonstrated with the experiences of two particular teams. In 2010 Portsmouth made their second FA Cup final in three years. In 2010 they also became the first Premier League side to go into administration. They were docked 9 points and were relegated from the Premier League. Though a place in the history books was cemented, the financial repercussions of being relegated are beyond major. Portsmouth have alarmingly since gone into administration again in 2012. In 2013, the aforementioned Wigan Athletic won the FA Cup and were relegated from the Premier League in the same season. Indeed, neither of these teams has been able to make it back to the Premier League since. The gap in TV money and revenue intimidates the boards of clubs immensely and league survival is imperative. Thus, the Roy of the Rovers underdog story lines in the cup continue to die away.
Why should the stronger teams in the Premier League make so many changes to their teams when, unlike most other countries, the FA Cup is allocated a weekend for its games. The other stronger leagues in Europe play their cup games in midweek, and so are maybe justified in making wholesale changes. The League Cup finishes in February and the semi final places for that Cup competition are actually decided before Premier League teams even enter the FA Cup in January.
The long-standing traditions of the FA Cup have become snarled up meaning today the competition cannot unfortunately be cordially embraced like it once was. The closest thing you can get in regards to a throwback of the magic is if you can be bothered to watch the FA Cup draw in early rounds of the competition. In those rounds, if a non-league team can draw a big side in an away fixture, that will garner the minnow a nice payday and television coverage leading to that effervescent jubilation and euphoria from club management, supporters and players alike.
In this seasons competition, Sutton United of the National League were drawn against the Premier League’s Arsenal in the 5th Round of the Cup. Arsenal who had their domestic league and the Champions League to think about, named a weakened team as was expected. With Arsenal 2-0 up in the tie, manager Arsene Wenger brought on star player Alexis Sanchez for the last 15 minutes or so of the game. If he had got injured there would have been pandemonium. Nevertheless the substitution was actually a classy touch from the Arsenal chief, giving the Sutton players and fans a chance to say they had played against and seen a player of top quality; a story to pass on to their grandchildren. These tales though are sporadic in regards to recent FA Cup magic. Nowadays the Cup upsets that used to hold so much significance are now mainly brushed under the carpet as teams are not naming their strongest sides anyway, and one senses that they almost wish to be eliminated.
Can the Cup reignite its magic? As money has been prioritised by the FA, lets face it, the viewing public is more a commodity than ever before, when the FA have recouped what they need (if indeed they have not already) then let’s for starters have the semi final’s back at neutral stadiums. The traditional 3pm kick off time also needs to be reinstated. When we look at it, that’s really all we can hope for. There were discussions of possibly making the winners of the cup qualify for the Champions League to breath new life into the competition. This would be fickle beyond belief. The top teams in England have not even made massive waves in Europe’s elite competition lately, so imagine if a Wigan or Portsmouth won the FA Cup again. For many others and myself the magic has gone. In my humble opinion, it’s a facup.
Written by Daniel Dwamena