I had a conversation with my friend Pete the other day, one of those I have on the dog walks when I’m not filming myself, and we more or less revolutionised modern football in 40 minutes.
We spoke about VAR, discipline and trial by video, the transfer system and domestic trophies. As we reached the final topic we tailed off into who won the FA Cup in what year, trying to piece together our knowledge, and that was the end of it. When I got back, after checking to see if I was right about QPR and Spurs contesting the 1982 final, I made a lot of notes around our conversation because I felt there might be a series of short articles worth putting out.
You might agree, you might not, but I’m going to do it anyway. My first attempt at rebuilding the domestic game from the bottom up is with domestic trophies.
The FA Cup
The FA Cup was once the pride of the English domestic game, a cup that teams wanted to win just as much as the league. I’ve recently seen a clip of Brian Clough talking about Liverpool’s Joe Mercer, saying how the only competition he didn’t win was the FA Cup and that would pain him. Can you imagine if Erik ten Hag won the Champions League and Premier League he’d give a hoot about not winning the FA Cup? No, of course not, because it has become devalued.
Why? Pete and I had many theories. He’s a Manchester United fan and he said he felt it lost lots of its prestige when United withdrew from it. He also felt it could have been when the change from old Wembley to new Wembley was made; we could name almost every final up to the final days of the old Wembley but struggled with many after that. I suggested the scheduling could have been an issue, moving it away from the final Saturday of the season for one, and this year’s plan to play the fifth round in midweek. I also felt the death of the Cup Winner’s Cup had something to do with its demise because back then the UEFA Cup and Cup Winner’s Cup has some value.
Grimsby fans might not think it has suffered a demise right now, just as we didn’t in 2017, but unless you go deep, it has. Once upon a time, FA Cup Final day was a big thing, clubs released cup final records, and the whole day’s television scheduling was altered. Now, it kicks off in the early evening, and often on the same day as a Championship play-off game. It feels as inconsequential in the domestic season as the League Cup. It shouldn’t.
The FA Cup is the reason the world has football. That’s a bold shout, but the FA Cup came before the Football League (16 years before), and whilst we’re credited with giving the world football, it was the FA Cup that gave us regular football. It is, in my eyes, the most important domestic competition in the world. Why would Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp appreciate that? Both of their domestic competition started after the turn of the 20th century and have never been broadcast globally to an audience of millions and were never national events. The Champions League might well have taken centre stage, but that’s for the elite few, and there’s never a chance of seeing Grimsby or us in that competition. The FA Cup is the football dream, where any team can be a success.
How can the FA Cup be brought back to its former glory? I’m aware some feel that awarding a Champions League place would be one such move, but I’m not so sure that would do it. Recently, much of the problem has been the big club’s dominance, as one faceless final after another tick by. By throwing a Champions League spot at it, the big clubs will just continue to completely dominate.
That said, I can see the attraction of European football and I think a Europa League spot should be awarded to either the winner or runner-up. I seem to recall in 2019 Watford were thrashed 6-0 in the final by Manchester City, and the Europa League spot went to the next highest-placed team in the Premier League. There’s your problem – make sure the Europa League spot is hardwired into the competition, so if the winner doesn’t need it, it goes to the runner-up, offering a viable route into Europe for Watford, or Brighton, a team that would value European football on any level. If the two finalists don’t need it, then it could go to the best-performing semi-finalist, or even result in a play-off game with the spot as a reward. I’m sure clubs like Crystal Palace, Leeds and Forest, for whom European qualification is a dream, would put extra effort into the FA Cup then.
Nothing should change further down the list. I’m a fan of replays, but I get why they’re not a feature later in the competition. However, all FA Cup games should be played over a weekend, and the final should definitely come after the final day of the domestic league season. I’d also look to arrange a neutral venue for the semi-finals based on geography. So, if it’s Spurs and Arsenal playing in a semi-final, have it in London at the next-biggest neutral stadium to Wembley. If it’s Manchester City and Leeds, seek to go somewhere close by and neutral, St James’ Park, for instance, to give the Wembley final an element of exclusivity again.
These smaller tweaks would help push and promote the competition to a wider fanbase, and perhaps restore some of the prestige.