Romance and drama buried beneath specualtion and sackings

Changes in football, as in life, are not easy to pinpoint. Nobody could have predicted the success of the Premier League and it was some years after it was launched that, through a whole series of events, it developed into the huge beast it has now become.

But, if you want to pinpoint the decline of the FA Cup, then I suggest that you look at Sky Sports News over the next few weeks. They are running a regular feature on football transfers. This is being done in classical television style. A presenter stands before a big board which lists players likely to move. It is compete with pointers and charts and we are told what is happening and what might happen.

Now this is not easy television as there are no moving pictures. But, as you would expect from the professionals at Sky, it is very well done. The moves of players are made to look like an elaborate game of snakes and ladders and it is all very eye catching.

Now, of course, we are in the middle of the transfer window, the last chance for clubs trying to hold on to their Premier League status or seeking glory to buy players and make sure they reach their targets. Sky is not the only one to highlight transfer speculation. The written media and other outlets also do that. But, in the past, transfer talk has not completely obscured the attention secured by the oldest and most romantic cup competition in the world. But not now.

This last weekend, the third round of the FA Cup, should have dominated the headlines. But instead all the talk is of transfer news. And the biggest news of all, the sacking of Neil Warnock as QPR manager, was related to the fact that the owners clearly wanted him out of the way before the transfer window closed. Their intention was that the new manager, Mark Hughes, should have enough time to get the players he needs to keep the Hoops in the top league. The way this news buried the third round of the Cup, when the big clubs enter the competition and face minnows leading to possible giant killing, showed how far the Cup has declined.

Paolo Di Canio and Swindon pulled off an upset over Wigan but gained little coverage. Image courtesy of PlayUp.

Paolo Di Canio and Swindon pulled off an upset over Wigan but gained little coverage. Image courtesy of PlayUp.

Indeed it seems to bear out the boast made to me a few months ago by the Football League chairman Greg Clarke that the League Cup was more important than the FA Cup. And to think that the League Cup was a competition set up in the 1950s by then League boss Alan Hardaker to keep English clubs out of Europe.

To measure the decline, consider that at its height the FA Cup was a beautifully conceived and organised competition. It started even before the summer was over, almost as soon the leagues got underway, but with amateur sides trying to qualify. The major action came in the third round in the first week of January. This is when the FA brought in the big boys. It was like saying we know the Christmas decorations have come down but we can produce some football magic which the League cannot match. For what we offer in the third round is the possibility of a David felling a Goliath. And as we know this happened often, making us all believe in romance.

But that world worked as long as there was a basic equality in English football. Yes there were big clubs but the gulf between the big and small was not unbridgeable. A Derby County could gain promotion to the old First Division and win the league; a Nottingham Forest could go even further and win the European Cup.

Now in an English professional football world which is more like Spain, Italy or Germany where cup competitions have never meant quite as much, for all the talk of romance and a Stanley Matthews finally winning a Cup medal, the FA Cup does not cut much ice. Then the FA Cup final was the only domestic match shown live on television. Now we live in a world of live football and the Cup has lost both its singular appeal and the moment when the nation comes together. Attendances for Cup matches keep declining and, for all the changes the FA makes, it cannot reverse this decline.

Sad but inevitable.

Nevertheless, to see the Sky transfer window getting more attention than the FA Cup makes the old romantic in me feel we have lost much without gaining anything. All change may have a silver lining but when pragmatism and the search for lucre always triumphs over romance, men of goodwill must mourn.


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