Time was when the third round of the FA Cup produced excitement, surprise, fun and often a touch of magic to keep the winter blues away. Now all it does is produce moans about how the Cup has been devalued and the competition is not what it was back in the old days. The only surprise is this year the moans began even before the third round matches had been played, ignited by comments of Paul Lambert of Aston Villa that the FA Cup did not mean much to Premier League teams.
The events since then have merely emphasised this with attendances falling in this year’s third round by an average of 34%, more than double the fall in last year’s third round when it was around 15. And Wigan, defending the Cup with what seemed an easy home fixture against MK Dons, recorded the biggest fall, a whooping 55%. Doncaster’s gate compared to 2013 also declined by 55% but they were not the holders. I cannot recall an occasion when a first time Cup winner plays its first home match since its victory and is greeted with empty seats as Wigan was last weekend.
The Cup’s decline has been further emphasised by the way managers approached the third round. So Sam Allardyce of West Ham fielded a virtual reserve side and was beaten by Nottingham Forest, a repeat of the 1991 result but by an even more emphatic margin.
Back then, of course, nobody would have dreamt of devaluing the Cup in this fashion. Indeed the Cup mattered so much that almost all the country, barring Tottenham Hotspur supporters, wanted Brian Clough to win it, this being the one trophy that had eluded Ol’ Big ‘Ed. In the event it did not work out but the passion generated showed how the Cup was seen.
Now Allardyce, struggling with a desperate League position, can justify his decision by saying staying in the Premiership is more important. Money talking you might say, but cynical as this may sound Allardyce would merely be reflecting how many managers and owners, particularly in the Premier League, now see the FA Cup.
So while much is made of Wigan’s victory in the Cup last year and how it was yet another great romantic FA Cup story, Dave Whelan, the Wigan owner, made no secret that given the choice he preferred his team to stay in the Premiership.
As he told me just before Wigan played their first ever Cup semi-final, “No question about that. I have promised the players a holiday in Barbados not for winning the FA Cup but for staying up.”
And this from a man who had such a bitter personal memory of the Cup. In the 1960 final, playing for Blackburn against Wolves, he lasted a mere 43 minutes before being stretchered off with a broken leg after a tackle by Norman Deeley, “It was so horrendous to be carried off with a broken leg. You can’t describe how bad you feel about things like that.” It was in order to take his mind off the 1960 memory that for the semi-final the then Wigan manager, Roberto Martinez, insisted that Whelan lead the Wigan team out at Wembley.
Whelan understood why the Cup had declined. “You wouldn’t imagine a change like that could happen. When I was growing up and playing, winning the FA Cup was something absolutely unbelievable.” He was 13 when he stood on the Wembley terraces to watch his boyhood hero, Tom Finney, playing for Preston North End. A year later it was Stanley Matthews. But, he says with resignation: “It has happened. You get so much money out of the Premier League, it’s just phenomenal.”
Yes Wigan fans had their great day out but can they really say it compensated for not being in the Premier League? Their attendance for the MK Dons match suggests not. Or ask Portsmouth fans whose victory was followed by such grief.
And the FA Cup’s decline has in the last few years produced no end of calls that the FA must do something before its crown jewel turns to paste. So almost three years ago Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, told me: “The FA is well aware that the FA Cup is the only jewel in their crown and is in danger of disintegrating. This would be a sad thing because I think it’s a fantastic Cup competition and we should do all we can to preserve it.”
And, like Whelan, Taylor is part of the generation which knows what the Cup meant. Taylor can recall the 1953 Stanley Matthews’ final: “It was one of the first games I remember seeing on television. We walked a long way because my dad had a friend who had a television set.” Being a Bolton man, he did not share in the nation’s desire for Matthews to win his first medal but he can still recall how that day’s events at Wembley brought the nation together.
The fact is that the FA Cup Final can no longer claim a place on the centre stage of the English football world as it did for more than a century. It is just another date in a very changed football calendar. And with so much live football on television, it is no longer even a special television event. Nor does the competition any longer define the season. The rise of the Premier League and the Champions League, whose final match now marks the end of the season, has played a big part in this. It has also not been helped by the abolition of the Cup Winners Cup. This European competition was often dominated by English Cup winners, Tottenham starting the run of success in Europe for English clubs back in 1963. There was a certain symmetry to it all.
To add to the FA’s misery, the League Cup, derided for years as Alan Hardaker’s unwanted baby, has revived itself. The crusty, insular League secretary’s desire to use the competition to divert English eyes from Europe may have failed. However, in the last decade as the FA Cup has grown old and sad, the League Cup has refused to die. If anything it has made its place secure and created a very interesting niche. Resuscitation was helped by making sure winners qualified for Europe. But the League also alleviated the crowded fixture list by streamlining the competition in various ways. This has included seeding clubs in European competition to Round Three, removal of replays from all rounds and ending the two-legged ties in the early rounds.
The League Cup’s success means that Greg Clarke, the Football League chairman, could proudly tell me: “The problem with the FA Cup is conceptual. We all had this Utopian vision when we grew up in the fifties, sixties and seventies. The FA Cup was the only live game on television once a year, the sun always shone, the streets were empty, everybody was in front of the television. Nowadays, when there’s live football all the time, the FA Cup isn’t as special as it was. The League Cup is being measured against a more practical benchmark, interesting football, good teams playing, and it doesn’t have to live up to old memories. The FA Cup is always being reinvented as being the best thing in football, which is what it was, and that’s very difficult.”
To be fair to the FA some of the events that have led to the decline of the FA Cup are beyond its control, like the rise of television coverage and the growth of the Champions League. In theory the Cup still has its marvellously egalitarian base: all clubs from the amateur ones on Hackney Marshes to the mightiest in the land competing on absolutely equal terms, and there can still be upsets. But what has changed is that the Cup no longer provides solace to those who have missed out in the League. That was what the made Cup an incentive, particularly for big clubs.
True, the FA has tried various innovations to revive the Cup but none of them have worked. And some of the FA’s tinkering, like having the draw on a Sunday afternoon when many of the matches have not even been played, have not looked clever. The FA has also not helped matters by other changes such as removing the unique mystique of the final by using Wembley for both semi-finals. This may be justified to fund the costs of the new Wembley but to damage your only great asset in the process does not say much for the FA’s strategic sense.
What the FA has to accept is that the glory days of the Cup will never return. Its place in the football calendar is a much reduced one. The FA must work in this limited space and redefine the role of football’s oldest competition. If it does not succeed then the Cup will become football’s version of the post-war story of British manufacturing, everyone agrees that it must be revived but nothing is done to revive it.