The FA Cup quite a remarkable competition. Having originated 146 years ago in 1871, it is one of the oldest domestic football competitions in the world. While it cannot compare to the glories of the Champions League or a Premier League title, the competition carries a certain aura to it that other competitions like the EFL Cup (Capital One Cup) cannot easily emulate. A special characteristic of the FA Cup is that any professional team in England within the top 10 divisions is eligible to enter. This leads to rare fixtures like non-league side Sutton United facing Champions League participants Arsenal, and Lincoln City prepping for a match against Premier League opposition Burnley. Inevitably, this can lead to ‘giant killings’- massive underdogs often taking down the toughest of opposition. Dubbed the “magic of the FA Cup”, it would not be an overstatement to say this ‘magic’ is what makes the competition truly special.
But like other things in the world, what we think to be real magic can often turn out to be just an illusion or deception that we want to believe, regardless of the truth. Which leads to the question: is the magic of the FA Cup real?
On the surface, the answer is yes: is there a Bradford City fan who doesn’t remember their 4-2 win at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea? Or Wigan’s upset in the final against Manchester City in 2013? Or even just this year, Oxford taking down Newcastle, Liverpool knocked out by Wolves, and Lincoln City taking apart Brighton? These are truly ‘giant killings’, which can often be seen in papers described as “the greatest moment in the club’s history”, “first win against them since before World War 1”, or “separated by over 60 places in the football league system”.
But we must look deeper. Take Oxford’s win against Newcastle: while Oxford started their best 11 against Newcastle, Magpies boss Rafa Benitez made nine changes to his lineup for the fixture from his previous match against Rotherham. Nine! With European fixtures in the schedule for top Premier League teams and crucial promotion battles for others, the FA Cup has somehow become an afterthought. It has become the norm for managers to start substitutes in cup games to give them playing time. Take Tottenham’s dramatic win against League 2 side Wycombe, for example. True, Spurs did come away with a 4-3 win, but for most of the match Spurs clearly looked the second best team on the field. Take a look at their lineup- Michel Vorm started in goal, while Carter-Vickers and Kieran Trippier were in the back line. In the midfield Moussa Sissoko started, with Kevin Nkoudou and Josh Onomah in the attack.
How many of these players do you think would get any Premier League starts in the near future? While some fans might be surprised at how PL front-runners Tottenham struggled against such a low opposition, the answer is quite simple- the match was just a chance for substitutes to get some playing time.
Liverpool applied the same tactic in their game against Wolves. Connor Randall, Ovie Ejaria, Benjamin Woodburn – how many would you recognize as Liverpool players? With all due respect to these young men who I am sure are talented professionals, I have not heard of any of them before the Wolves match. Now, the real question is, has the magic of the FA Cup ever been real? Or were the ‘giants’ just young, inexperienced footballers behind the mask of a Premier League side they have never or rarely featured in?
This leads to another point as to why this practice of fielding substitutes in the early rounds of the FA Cup, or even in the latter stages has become the norm. If your team goes all the way to Wembley and lifts the cup, the prize money is a grand total 1.8 million pounds. With transfer fees for quality top players ranging anywhere from 20 to 50 million pounds, most Premier League clubs and even Championship teams might consider the FA Cup a party they never really wanted to be invited to. From their point of view, it’s just some extra fixtures in their already cramped schedule against lower league opposition- why not give some youngsters a chance to play?
Let’s put the first place prize money of 1.8 million pounds into perspective- Brentford striker Scott Hogan moved to Aston Villa this transfer window for 12 million pounds, while Burnley have completed the signing of Robbie Brady from Norwich for 13 million quid. Crystal Palace managed to sign Liverpool defender Mamadou Sakho on loan until the end of the season for a price of 2 million. A way to have more competition and more quality into the FA Cup is very straightforward- increase the prize money. For most clubs in the top three leagues, 1.8 million is money they can simply do without. For a non-league side running on a budget of 1 million a year, the prize money they collect through the cup can be crucial in the growth of their club. But with clubs like Manchester United forking over 89 million pounds for a single player(Pogba), 1.8 million means very little to Premier League sides. Just look at how former United manager Louis van Gaal was fired days after he led his team to the FA Cup trophy.
We can’t argue that the FA Cup is unimportant- we have seen players and managers who have good performances in the competition often move up a league or two to better teams. Even with trophies like the Champions League, Europa league and the Premier League title, the FA Cup still remains one of the most prestigious club competitions in the world. However it may not be in a few years as the Premier League and the Football League system moves to higher standards, and continues to field less-experienced players which often leads to lower league teams overpowering them. A true underdog victory against a quality Premier League or Championship opposition is something we can all rally behind and call ‘magic’; but at the moment, I’m more convinced that the magic was just an illusion. Unless the standard of the FA Cup rises along with the other leagues in the country, it will continuously get harder to convince people of the FA Cup magic is real- in the end, nobody might want to believe, and the once-prestigious competition could turn out to be a party that nobody wants to be at.
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