League's allure outshines the cups

Attendance figures reveal that more and more supporters are turning their backs on domestic knock-out competitions
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The Independent Football

After A week-long flurry of domestic cup matches, league football returns to England and Wales this weekend. In the recent past it would have been a case of back to the bread-and-butter after a rich feast of knock-out fare, but the past eight days have confirmed that the British football public's tastes are changing.

After A week-long flurry of domestic cup matches, league football returns to England and Wales this weekend. In the recent past it would have been a case of back to the bread-and-butter after a rich feast of knock-out fare, but the past eight days have confirmed that the British football public's tastes are changing.

While league football is riding the crest of a wave - Premier League gates last season averaged more than 30,000 for the first time and Nationwide League crowds were up for the 13th successive year - domestic cup football is in serious decline.

Average crowds for last weekend's AXA-sponsored FA Cup third round matches were down by more than 3,600 on last season's to 12,586. Twenty years ago the third round of football's oldest and most famous knock-out competition generated an average gate of more than 18,500.

The Worthington Cup has suffered a similar fate. Four matches (three of them quarter-finals) were staged this week and attracted an average gate of just 12,536. With Bolton facing Tranmere in one of the semi-finals, the trend is set to continue.

The coming week would normally give clubs a chance to prepare for the busy Christmas holiday programme, but for 22 teams, there will be no such respite. All are engaged next Tuesday and Wednesday in FA Cup ties, bringing an erosion of rest time for the players involved and for supporters, another assault on their wallets.

Much of the blame for the declining FA Cup gates has been put on the rescheduling of the competition. Traditionally the third round has been staged on the first weekend of January, but because of the congestion caused by this season's expanded European the programme was brought forward by four weeks.

The Football Association has already promised a rethink for next season after last weekend's experience. The Challenge Cup committee, due to meet next month, will have to choose between keeping this year's early start or revert to a January third round and impinge further on tradition by scrapping replays.

AXA, still smarting from the withdrawal of Manchester United to play in next month's World Club Championship in Brazil, says the picture on gates is distorted because there were only eight Premiership teams at home this year compared with 11 last season, one of which was United. However, all of those Premiership teams drew smaller crowds than their league average, with Leeds and Wimbledon almost 70 per cent down.

While the profile of Premier League football rises inexorably - and appears to pull Nationwide League football along with it - there is evidence that the FA Cup's malaise runs deep. Figures produced by the Imperial College Management School in London, for example, indicate that the attractiveness of FA Cup ties in general is on the wane.

"Twenty years ago," the economist Stefan Szymanski discovered, "attendance at an FA Cup game would be about 50 per cent higher on average than at the equivalent league match between the same two sides. Since then the ratio has plummeted. Two seasons ago, FA Cup matches attracted a lower gate on average than league matches for the first time in its history."

Szymanski also highlighted a declining incidence of giant-killing feats, the very thing that has given the FA Cup its special romance. He reported that between 1977 and 1987 giant-killings - a club beating an opponent from at least two divisions higher - averaged four per season. Since then there have been only two. He sees this as a consequence of the growing financial inequality between top clubs and minnows, mocking the Cup's claim to be a great leveller.

But other factors can be argued to have undermined the Cup's appeal, not least the role of the FA itself, which is perceived to have sent out precisely the wrong signal by allowing Manchester United to pull out, an indication that its own cherished flagship is no longer regarded as sacrosanct. The tampering with traditional dates is interpreted in the same way.

The Football Supporters' Association believes falling Cup gates point in part to discontent among fans with inflated ticket prices. The small crowd at Leeds followed Port Vale's refusal to agree to cut-price admission. Moreover, with many more supporters now buying season tickets for league games, there appears to be a reluctance to fork out for cup matches, which are not generally included in season tickets.

Sheila Spiers, an FSA spokesperson, said: "Since the Taylor report, prices have gone up 11 per cent every year, which makes football a very expensive business. Supporters are saying that they simply cannot afford extra games and I'm sure the FA Cup is suffering as a result."

However, David Davies, the FA's executive director, argues that the appeal of the FA Cup is undiminished. "People who question the magic of the Cup haven't been to places like Wrexham or Tranmere this time around, Chesterfield a couple of years ago or Fulham last year," he said.

He added: "We were concerned about this year's third-round attendances, although compared with average crowds for the competition proper as a whole over the last 10 years they come out reasonably well. The cause of this issue is fixture congestion and our fixture schedulers were clear in saying that we either bring the third round forward or lose replays.

"There will be no complacency. Everybody wants the FA Cup to be successful, including the Premier League clubs, and we fervently believe the FA Cup to be very special. But people did not play 17 games in Europe in days gone by and the Cup has to operate in today's environment.

"I understand the comments made about Manchester United's absence and the message it might send out. But it was an exceptional response to exceptional circumstances which will not be repeated. United will definitely be in the competition next season."

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