Once upon a time, the FA cup was the greatest crowd puller of them all. When Burnley won the league in 1960, a third round replay against unglamorous second division Lincoln drew a crowd in excess of 35,000 – higher than every home league gate of that glorious season except the visit of Manchester United over Christmas. A fifth round tie with Bradford, then struggling in the third division, drew over 50,000 – comfortably beating that attendance against United. In the quarter final, Blackburn came to the Turf and another 50,000 crowd – almost twenty thousand more than the equivalent league fixture – was pulled in. But if Burnley were at home to anybody outside the Premiership this weekend, a gate of much more than 10,000 couldn’t be guaranteed.
That isn’t an indictment upon us. Look anywhere across the country this weekend, and indifference will be everywhere. Few grounds will be full. Few people will really care. The FA cup has become football’s equivalent of a relative who only turns up at family occasions. Everyone feels compelled to be polite about it, and might even be quite glad to see it again, but no-one is all that disappointed when it’s gone.
The truth of the matter is that the FA cup has been overtaken as the rather ugly fight to be at the front of the breadline has intensified. In the Premiership, the priority is the Champions League, with its majestic rewards for modest achievement. In the Nationwide League, the scramble to make the Premiership is all consuming. With ambivalence from the clubs, it is inevitable that supporters too will begin to conclude that the FA cup is attractive but meaningless. Furthermore, as clubs seek to cash in and squeeze every pound out of every fan, the sky high ticket prices which make football such an expensive hobby mean that unless the cup throws up a glamour home tie for the smaller club, the cup has become an extravagance too far for many fans.
Over the years, the failing allure of the cup has been mirrored and exacerbated by unsympathetic treatment from those at the top. The third round was moved to an uncomfortable mid-December date, before it was moved back again. Teams have been allowed to withdraw from the competition. But now the authorities have, to their credit attempted to turn the tide. The trouble is, at present they have made little more than token gestures, and it will take more than that to effect the necessary sea change in attitudes throughout the game.
They have to start with the top. If the biggest clubs – Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and the rest – really begin to take it seriously again, then the rest of the game will follow suit. And in order to achieve that, a big gesture is required.
The old days when the warm glow of victory was enough have gone forever. Today, the result of the success is more important than the success itself. The FA cup needs to an incentive at the end of the road which makes it a worthwhile pursuit for the big boys.
And that incentive should be the Champions League. Do more people remember who comes fourth in the league than win the cup? Even now, I doubt it. As such the cup should be recognised. It should become a passport into Europe for one more club who have won something.
There are those who argue that the cup winners will only have played six teams in order to reach that prize, instead of nineteen in the league. That is true. Similarly, it is said that the luck of the draw can play a huge role in winning the cup. True again.
But luck plays a part in league success. Luck with injuries, luck in playing teams when they are out of form, luck in getting breaks at the right time. Coming fourth in the league, instead of fifth or sixth or seventh, can hinge on one decision in one game.
The cup, by contrast, involves every club in every senior league England. Every Premiership club goes into the third round hat, along with first division clubs and those who have earned the right in the earlier rounds. But only one team can show the requisite consistency to win six consecutive ties. That is one trait not required to earn fourth place in the league. There are others, too, which come to the fore in a knockout situation: discipline, bravery and nerve in order to battle through the sternest tests which can be thrown up in a one-off situation.
And, yes, it might mean that the odd surprise package takes its place amongst the pantheon of European giants in the Champions League. But they will be there because, in the finest tradition of the cup, they earned it. They will be there because they won something.
But that cannot happen this season. This years winners will play in the UEFA cup.
But, despite that, I wouldn’t mind a trip to Cardiff…