The FA Cup: do we care any more?

The FA Cup once enjoyed a unique hold over English football, with third-round weekend regarded by many as a highlight of the sporting calendar. But what about now, asks Glenn Moore
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The Independent Football

Up for the Cup? Not in Blackburn. The Beatles sang of 4,000 holes in the Lancastrian town; the bean counters at Ewood Park are more worried about the 20,000 empty seats at today's FA Cup third-round tie with Queen's Park Rangers. If Rovers, semi-finalists last year, win the Cup for a seventh time not many will be able to say they followed them all the way.

It is not just Blackburn. Manchester City, Newcastle United, Sunderland, West Bromwich and Fulham are among other Premiership clubs who, despite reducing prices for their FA Cup ties over the next two days, have been unable to sell out.

This used to be one of the most evocative weekends of the year. The weekend when the part-timers, men who usually drive buses and push pencils for a living, got their 90 minutes of fame as they mixed it with the big boys.

And sometimes beat them. The legends are legion: the white horse final, the Stanley Matthews final, Bert Trautmann's broken neck, the heroics of Yeovil, Colchester, Hereford and Wimbledon. But how many images will go down the generations from the Premiership era?

The world's oldest cup competition, one which predates the League, which has a pedigree stretching back to a time when the gentleman amateurs of the Old Etonians and Royal Engineers were the finest footballers in the land, has - in some eyes at least - become increasingly marginalised by the all-singing, all-dancing Premiership and the lucrative Champions' League. So has the growing popularity of those competitions, along with the proliferation of televised football and the increased dominance of the big clubs, meant that the Cup has lost its magic?

It is no longer the TV event of the year

The FA Cup used to be a day-long televisual event. As a boy, 30 years ago, I was part of a generation that would devour everything from 11am to 6pm, from Cup Final It's a Knock-out to the player-by-player portraits and the bus route to Wembley.

Meals were taken in front of the television - a singular treat - and my brother and I only left our seats at half-time, to re-enact highlights in the garden. Even as a student it was a day to grab the papers and a crate of ale, plonk yourself on the sofa and watch. It was, after all, the only time we saw live football on the television.

Now my wife is convinced every channel shows football all day and all night and she has a point. The FA Cup final is just another match. It's viewing figures, helped by heavy promotion, have picked up since 2001 (see panel) but are still less than half the 28.49 million who watched Chelsea beat Leeds in the 1970 replay, and fail to match the big Champions' League ties. It was once thought saturation television coverage would kill the game. It hasn't, it has enriched it beyond belief and consequently provided a golden age. But it has killed the Cup final on television.

The fans don't care

Manchester United at home should be the signal to hire extra staff for the ticket office, but when Middlesbrough pulled out the plum tie in 2003 only 17,624 turned up at the Riverside. A month earlier 34,358 watched the same teams at the same venue in the Premiership. Television coverage and the added expense at many clubs of laying out another £40 after putting the mortgage on a season-ticket are factors, but there is also the sense at Premiership clubs that the Cup has lost its lustre. League attendances, across all divisions, have been on a steady increase since 1985-86, football's post-Heysel nadir. In that time the average gate has risen by 77 per cent but Cup crowds have remained broadly static (see panel). Thus from Sunderland to Chelsea prices have been cut in an attempt to fill seats, not always successfully.

The players don't care

The greatest cup competition in the world? Not according to Roy Keane. "Sure it was a day out for our families and everybody who worked so hard behind the scenes at the club," he wrote in his autobiography. "The Wembley myth, the folklore attached to the walk out of the tunnel, the red carpet, meeting the big shots, going up to collect your medal, a pat on the back from the great and the good (and hopefully the Cup), all of it was bollocks. The Premiership and the Champions' League were the only trophies we were concerned about." And he played in seven finals, more than anyone since the Victorians, winning four.

The managers don't care

Bob Stokoe and Lawrie McMenemy entered folklore by leading Sunderland and Southampton to FA Cup success. Brian Clough spent his career yearning to win the old pot. For decades the idea that any manager would rest players in Cup games to concentrate on the League was ridiculous.

Now it is not just the big four who will be resting players this weekend. Among others Wigan and Sheffield United will be fielding weakened teams. And can you blame them? Staying in, or reaching, the Premiership is worth £20m a year. For those teams in with a good chance of winning the FA Cup there are bigger prizes to play for, notably the Champions' League. Cup runs may provide short-term fame and fortune but three seasons after taking Chesterfield to the FA Cup semi-final John Duncan was sacked. He remains out of work.

Foreign managers frequently pay lip service to the prestige and history of the FA Cup. Yes, they watched it as youngsters and, yes, they are delighted to finally be involved in this great competition. But no, they won't be playing their strongest side either. Take the most famous foreign manager at the moment, the one who manages Chelsea. Where will John Terry and Frank Lampard be this week? Dubai. Neither wild horses nor sore muscles would stop Jose Mourinho picking his two talismen for a Premiership game. But the FA Cup against Huddersfield? Taxi to Heathrow.

The solution is easy: hand one of the four Champions' League qualifying places to the FA Cup winners. The Premier League could do it, but it won't.

The same teams win it every year

Once upon a time it was one of the intriguing questions of the season. No matter which teams were dominating at the top of the League, the FA Cup was able to produce gloriously unpredictable winners. West Bromwich in 1968 perhaps, followed by that wonderful triumvirate, Sunderland, West Ham and Southampton, from the mid-Seventies. In the following decade Coventry and Wimbledon lifted the Cup in successive seasons, and until 1994 only two sides had doubled up as League champions and FA Cup winners throughout the century.

But now? In the last 14 years Arsenal (five), Manchester United (four), Chelsea (two) and Liverpool (two) have carved it up between them. Everton's 1995 victory was a shock then. Looking back, it seems a miracle.

There aren't any shocks any more

Or are there? In fact, after a dip in the early years of the Premiership, the shocks are on a historical par (see panel). Since 1999-2000, 39 ties have ended with top-flight clubs beaten by non-Premiership teams. Manchester City, at Oldham last year, are among nine who lost to opposition from the lower two divisions. Others include Bolton to Tranmere (2004), Everton at Shrewsbury (2003), Derby and Leeds at home to Bristol Rovers and at Cardiff (2002).

The trickle-down of native talent which has resulted from the influx of foreigners and the development of the academy system means most teams can play a bit. This applies in the increasingly professional Conference.

Granted, Arsenal, or even Charlton have not been humbled by a non-League team, but such instances have always been rare. We all grew up watching Ronnie Radford and Ricky George putting out Supermac's Newcastle while John Motson screams his disbelief, but Hereford's 1972 triumph is among just four in the last 50 years (the others being Wimbledon at Burnley, 1975; Altrincham at Birmingham, 1986; and Sutton against Coventry, 1989). Meanwhile, as many clubs have reached the semi-finals from outside the top two divisions in the last eight years (Chesterfield 1997; Wycombe 2001) as in the previous 37. So, not proven.

Incidentally, the Cup's most successful team, Manchester United, have not lost to opposition from outside the top flight since Harry Redknapp's Bournemouth beat them in 1984.

The finals are boring

After a vintage spell either side of 1990 this is broadly true. There have been some dramatic finishes (Andy Linighan's late goal for Arsenal in the 1993 replay and Michael Owen's double against Arsenal in 2001), but the matches have been poor. In the last three finals Southampton and Millwall concentrated on keeping the score down against Arsenal and Manchester United respectively, then Arsenal, of all teams, played for penalties against United last May. And only once in the last 12 finals have both teams scored (Liverpool's 2-1 win over Arsenal, 2001). Then again, many would claim it was ever thus: there were five one-nils in the Seventies and dull Cup finals in every decade.

The verdict

The FA Cup is not what is was, but in the modern age it could never be. The FA has failed to stand up to the myopic, selfish Premier League, but the major factors are largely out of its control. The explosion in televised football has inevitably diluted the aura of Cup final day. The development and growth of the Champions' League, together with the emphasis on revenue generation, have diminished the competition's value. And the financial muscle of a handful of clubs means they can play reserves in the early rounds yet still dominate.

Yet as Burton meet Manchester United and Mansfield mix it with Newcastle that old Cup magic still lingers. Ask Martin Allen, the manager of Brentford. Today he takes his team to an unglamorous tie at Stockport County. Is the Cup an unwanted distraction? Not on your life.

"It's still a great competition for me," he said. "The tradition, the history. It's so special to me and my players. If we get a Cup run I won't be worried. Last year we reached the fifth round before losing to Southampton in a replay. I think it helped us. It brought cash into the club. The players gained confidence, and the excitement was great for them and the supporters."