A straight knockout format would spark the public’s interest
The Premier League was on a much-deserved hiatus this weekend, with the FA Cup taking its place.
Watching the many promotional vignettes which accompanied the third-round, you could be forgiven for thinking that the old competition is still as beloved as ever and that the public still buy into all the cliches associated with it. That’s not really true.
The Premier League has been stealing more of the tournament’s thunder with each passing year and the growth of continental football has added another layer of priority above that.
Of course, some of the wounds are self-inflicted. Broadcasting habits have meant that cup weekends are now dominated by popular sides playing non-competitive fixtures and the public have grown audibly frustrated with television executives’ failure to look beyond viewing figures.
That’s a tricky problem to solve. Without legislative change at contract level, there’s no way of forcing a different mindset and we are likely stuck with the ‘Manchester United, whoever they’re playing’ approach to game-selection for the foreseeable future.
Beyond television, though, The FA is probably also guilty of allowing the tournament to lag behind the times and of adhering to an outdated structure: it’s time to abolish replays.
This isn’t an unambiguous issue. One of the incentives for smaller sides – those who have no realistic hope of winning the trophy – is the financial implication of being drawn at a big ground or forcing a replay after an initial home tie.
To certain clubs, that can be a future-changing moment and the ticket-revenue from playing in front of 50,000 supporters is really their version of winning the tournament. That’s not lost on anybody.
From a profile standpoint, however, a degree of streamlining is essential. The cup is marketed on its value to produce upsets, on its drama and on its supposed ‘romance’ – and making every round a straight knockout would undeniably reinforce those values.
When, for example, a big side is drawn away to a lower-league team, we all root for the underdog. The pokey little ground, the bad playing surface and the temporary stands: that’s what the FA Cup is about. Wouldn’t it be more of a spectacle, though, if the bigger side were denied the safety-net of a replay?
The financial reward of that second game is compensatory, as discussed, but for all intents and purposes the tie is effectively over.
That seems contrary to the spirit of the competition; when a Goliath underestimates a David, we want to see Goliath fall – we don’t want Goliath to have the chance to go home, study the video tape, and make absolutely sure that he doesn’t make the same mistakes the second time around.
In an age when fixture congestion is a problem, replays also favour the bigger, wealthier teams. Adding another game into a season is obviously to the benefit of those who can rotate players without compromising their competitiveness, and clearly to the detriment of those sides whose resources are continually stretched.
The league is a priority for everyone, not just top-flight clubs, and the difficulty of that balance at a second, third and fourth-tier level probably needs to be respected more than it is.
Without interfering with the competitive balance, the competition should be weighted towards the minnows as much as possible.
The FA Cup is the ‘great leveler’, it’s about unlikely heroes and it’s as close as football ever gets to sporting socialism – but it needs a re-boot if those platitudes are to remain valid.
Let’s give it some immediacy. Get rid of the elongated format and inject the old cup with some much needed peril.