Ahead of this weekend’s FA Cup fourth round ties, InsiderSport contributor Shane Clancy investigates whether a competition that was once regarded as the most important in Europe has retained its magic in the modern era.
Hard as it may be to believe, there was once a time when the FA Cup was one of the most valued trophies in the world. Every young player dreamed of walking out at Wembley. Managers aspired to lead their team onto that hallowed turf on a sunny Saturday afternoon in May.
For generations, we’ve passed the stories onto our children about the famous games of days-gone-by. The “Matthews Final” of 1953, Sunderland stunning Leeds in 1973, Ricky Villa’s jinking run and finish to hand Spurs the cup in the ‘81 replay, Wimbledon’s ‘Crazy Gang’ upsetting Liverpool in 1988, Michael Owen’s late double to help the Merseyside club overturn a one-goal deficit and beat Arsenal in 2001, the “Gerrard Final” in 2006 – I could go on. Nowadays, when the final comes around towards the end of the season, it can sometimes be accompanied by the feeling that we are flogging a dead horse.
The media continue to hype it up as the hugely important season-ending fixture it once was. You can almost feel their unease at trying to pull the wool over our eyes once more. We know the cup has lost its magic. We’re not happy about it either. But that’s what happens when the sport is saturated with eye-popping prize money elsewhere.
The UEFA Champions League awards teams over £13 million for making the group stages and over £2 million for every win they get in the group. There is a huge pot for each time for every round they advance to. The FA Cup winners will pocket approximately £6.8 million, which includes the awards for winning in all the rounds en-route to the final.
An added incentive is that the winners of the FA Cup do qualify for the following season’s UEFA Europa League which leads onto further potential earnings for the club. However, in the UK in particular, the gloss seems to have gone off football’s oldest trophy.
The Premier League (PL) has the highest percentage of foreign players (67% of over 500 registered players) out of any of Europe’s top five leagues. Spain and France (31 players each) are the most represented countries in English football’s top tier. To take these two nations as an example, it’s unlikely that young footballers in Madrid, Barcelona, Paris or Marseille had dreams of winning the FA Cup as they grew up. They were probably barely aware of the competition’s existence. So, while the influx of foreign talent has enhanced the standard of football we are treated to every weekend in England, it has diluted the importance of what used to be a major cup competition.
The early stages of the FA Cup are treated with the same relevance now as the League Cup. Managers will try out some fringe players and talent from the Under 23s. Why? Well, besides the winner’s medal and lifting the cup, there is relatively little monetary reward for clubs now in comparison to the PL.
West Bromwich Albion finished bottom of the PL table last season. As a result of TV money and the ‘equal share’ from the PL pot, The Baggies still earned over £90 million for simply being a part of the top division. This amount dwarfs what Championship clubs make in a season.
When considering such facts, it becomes clearer why managers of top-flight teams just can’t take the FA Cup too seriously. Unless their team is safe from relegation or not involved in a title-race or a battle for a top-four spot (Champions League qualification), then it’s actually quite unfair to pin blame on teams who give more relevance to their PL results.
How can the Football Association change this? What can they do to make the FA Cup a more desirable trophy to have in the cabinet?
Clubs want PL glory and/or European success. Continental ‘fame’, in particular, puts the club on the map for players who previously may not have known much them. Players then see that club as a possible stepping-stone to success and a way to play with and against the best in Europe on a regular basis. The FA Cup can’t offer that. Chief Executives can’t laud FA Cup success as a selling point when trying to attract the top talent to their teams anymore. It will mean little, especially to a foreign star.
The obvious suggestion would be for the FA Cup winners to gain entry to the Champions League playoffs, therefore earning themselves a shot at qualification for the extremely lucrative group stages. However, this is currently not feasible as there would need to be talks between the FA and the Premier League as they are separate organisations. How any agreement would be reached is unclear. Frankly, it won’t be happening.
Another option is to significantly increase the prize pot for the FA Cup. Yet, the FA can’t compete with the money on offer in the PL and the Champions League so any increase they could manage would still only be regarded as an incentive for teams outside the PL.
The solution is not immediately clear. However, it is increasingly necessary. One could argue the cup lost its charm in the 90s, in the years following the introduction of the PL. Recovering that allure and fascination is a task not to be taken lightly. Over to you, Football Association.