Clouded by finances and fixture lists, but magic of the FA Cup remains in its players
Welcome to Tuesday Team Talk. Every week, the H+K Sports team will give a unique perspective on the week’s football action and the stories making the headlines across the beautiful game.
The FA Cup third round weekend. In English football, there really is nothing better. Every year, this marvellous weekend in January brings out the very best of the beautiful game. The terrible pitches, tiny dressing rooms, strikers that double as school teachers and the giant killings, the glorious giant killings. But listen to the conversation this weekend, and you might believe the FA Cup had lost its former magic. With gripes about fixture congestion and under-strength teams, many have started to believe the FA Cup has gone stale. But has it?
Perhaps the most high profile complaint focused on the fixture list. Fixture congestion during the winter period is a familiar gripe for English clubs. Many managers have argued against it, Premier League new boy Jürgen Klopp went as far to warn Pep Guardiola about the chaos of the English fixture list. The FA Cup itself came in for particular criticism, with Alan Pardew one of the managers to criticise the fixture list which saw a full round of mid-week Premier League fixtures straight after the FA Cup weekend. As ever, a number of teams selected weakened sides for the third round, conscious of the volume of fixtures. It wasn’t just Premier League sides either. For the least romantic view of the FA Cup, look no further than Dagenham and Redbridge coach John Still. Still, whose side that travelled to Everton included two loanees who had never trained with their team-mates, essentially admitted afterwards that his game plan was to avoid a heavy defeat that would impact morale: “To play in the Premier League now you have to be the best players in the world and in Europe. So that makes it more difficult to get shocks. You can’t affect what they do. You can affect what you do and I think that’s what we did today.” With fixture congestion and injuries stretching squads across the country, it seems for some the potential glory of a cup upset may no longer be worth the risk.
The rhetoric of the FA Cup is nothing if not romantic - the magic of an FA Cup upset, the nostalgia of re-visiting the history books and the beauty of a trip to the lower leagues for highly paid star. Today though, there’s another word that dominates the lexicon of an FA Cup weekend, one far less romantic and far more pragmatic - finances. Recently, some of most notable story-lines have revolved around lower league clubs whose financial future was secured by a lucrative FA Cup away day. Bradford’s win against Arsenal in 2012 was notable for securing their long term future. While watching Exeter host Liverpool in one of the weekends more entertaining games, commentators were quick to point out the value of their draw at Manchester united in 2005. In fact, as Exeter gave away their lead twice at home, there was a feeling that in fact a draw that gave them a trip to Anfield may be the best outcome. There’s no point trying to suggest that football and money can be separated, it’s a business and it always will be. But the potential value of an FA Cup replay is now so explicit, some of the romance is lost from the potential Cinderella story.
On this evidence then, you might think that between fixtures and finances there is no magic left in the FA Cup. However,while these things generate headlines, they are at most secondary concerns. The magic of the FA Cup lives on at its heart - the action on the pitch. This came through this weekend with the performances of young players up and down the country, who seized their chance to claim the national spotlight. From Tom Nichols scoring for Exeter on Friday night, to Kemar Roofe leading giant killers Oxford to FA Cup glory, to Ruben Loftus-Cheek taking his turn as the match winner for Chelsea. Up and down the country, the young stars at all levels of English football took the opportunity to inspire. With one performance show that they belong with the big boys of English football, with one moment of brilliance convince fans they may just have the next great star. To find the real magic of the FA Cup, look no further than the young talents who made the FA Cup third round their own.
Where then does the FA Cup fit in today’s footballing landscape? Some would say that it’s lost its lustre, that the finances and the drain on fixtures have reduced its importance. But not for me. The FA Cup still has a magic unmatched by any other cup competition. As entertaining as the Premier League and the other top flight leagues are, they also have certain sterility. The best players in the world, at their peak, facing off with millions of pounds the prize. The names, the tactics, the format, it follows a pattern. It’s a little like a beautiful oil painting. Structured, perfect, intensely valuable, but ultimately familiar. The FA Cup, by contrast, is an abstract masterpiece. The chaos, the imperfection, the beauty. Players you don’t recognise, playing in a setting that is completely unique, but still producing brilliant entertainment. The FA Cup is a flawed masterpiece, but a masterpiece all the same. It may have its problems, but ultimately it has a quality unmatched in English football, perhaps world football, and deserves to be celebrated. Whatever tweaks are required to maintain its importance, have to be a priority, lest we risk losing this magical tournament once and for all.