The Nick Townsend Column: Why the FA Cup should never be an afterthought - or a job for the boys

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The Independent Football

Sometimes you feel like the child dumped in the back seat of the car by his parents who breaks the silence during an interminable journey with that plaintive cry: "Are we nearly there yet?" Followed by the inevitable: "Anyway, dad, where are we going?"

The destination of this season's FA Cup, whether it be the new kid on the block, Wembley, or that stadium of convenience, the magnificent Millennium, remains about the most intrigu-ing aspect of a tournament that has been so abused and insulted it should be in a refuge for battered icons.

There are times when you wonder whether the grand old pot will ever recover its lustre, the powers that be having simply failed to protect what should have been a Grade One Listed sporting property.

Admittedly, I approach this subject from a slightly biased perspective, as someone who regards third-round Saturday as something akin to a sacred day in the calendar. A date when we should pause for a moment and recall Ronnie Radford's and Ricky George's goals for Hereford against Newcastle in 1972 or Wrexham's Mickey Thomas, one of the scorers against Ars-enal 20 years later; occasions when the bulging egos of the managerial leviathans were badly bruised and the reputations of their teams smashed like a shopful of highly prized porcelain.

We still look back fondly on days which evoke sepia-tinged images of mudheaps for pitches and often umpteen replays. Did you know that the fourth qualifying round tie between Alve-church and Oxford City in 1971-72 took six matches and 11 hours before the former prevailed? They were days when the FA Cup could represent a serial relationship between two sides, not as Arsène Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson would prefer, a one-night stand in their desire to turn their clubs' progress into a fast track to the final.

Dispensing with replays for teams in Europe? The competition has surely been downgraded enough already since the times when replays were played the following week; since United were granted permission to forego the FA Cup to participate in a tournament in South America; and since the disappearance of the European Cup-Winners' Cup, with FA Cup winners now rewarded with nothing more seductive than that metaphor for tedium and irrelevance, the revamped Uefa Cup.

Of course, we will never return to the days when the FA Cup truly did have a unique fascination. Everton's 1995 triumph is the only occasion since the creation of the Premiership and the concentration of power within the Big Four that another club has intruded on that cartel's domination.

No wonder teams are inhibited by the belief that winning the FA Cup is beyond them. Reading's manager, Steve Coppell, made that claim earlier in the season and the facts generally support him, though if his men overcome Manchester United in Tuesday night's replay, he may possibly have cause to review his opinion.

But just contrast the Premiership seasons with the 46 postwar years prior to 1992. No fewer than 23 different clubs lifted the trophy in a period when the FA Cup genuinely could be said to have spread its favours around generously.

Today, the competition has become no more than an after-thought for many clubs. On Tuesday night, the combined effects of United's fixture congestion and Reading's proximity to a European place mean that the Royals and the champions-elect will entertain the BBC's prime-time audience with starting line-ups containing possibly eight players in each side who would not normally be first choices.

Though the BBC's viewing figures for live FA Cup football are not exactly in spiralling decline, they do not suggest either that the nation is agog at the prospect. Manchester United games are guaranteed decent audiences regardless, and last Saturday's first game against Reading attracted a 6.9 million peak (6.2m average), but the following day's offering, Preston v Manchester City, pulled in only a 4.1m peak figure (3.3m average).

For the moment, E.ON, the United Kingdom's largest integrated electricity and gas company and the current sponsors of the FA Cup, remain publicly enthusiastic. "The competition is breaking many records: the highest fifth-round attendance for 27 years and the highest goals per game ratio for five years. The fourth-round televised replay between Bolton and Arsenal is reported to have had more viewers than the Brit awards," insists their spokesman, Nick Sandham. "The FA Cup is still a great competition, with a heritage and memories that are second to none. Being part of this is fantastic."

However, it is imperative to the health of the game that the FA Cup does not go the way of the League Cup and become what might be described as a job for the boys - as Arsenal will demonstrate with a line-up in which Thierry Henry is a spectator at the Millennium today.

Upgrading the winner of the FA Cup to the Champions' League is an absolute non-starter. But what is required is a renewed respect for the competition. While we should not blithely disregard realities - managing a leading club these days is about a delicate balance of resources (even Ferguson's are not infinite) and priorities - the FA Cup will never receive the buffing up it needs until the Fergusons and Coppells declare unambiguously: "We're up for the Cup." And deploy teams who allow us to believe once more that, like a Paul Daniels illusion, "That's magic".

Parity of pay - but still a disparity in appeal

There may be many valid explanations why the organisers of Wimbledon have bowed to the demands for equal pay for women players. But Tim Phillips, the chairman of the All England Club, could scarcely have appeared less convincing in expressing them.

This may be a quite erroneous impression, but if ever there was a man who appeared to be desperately attempting to apply logic to a decision which seemed to be based more on sheer pressure, both political and from the distaff side of the sport itself, it was Phillips.

If, as has been claimed, the decision enhances the women's game, and in particular provides encouragement for younger players, that can only be beneficial for the sport's future. Ultimately, one suspects it is not a question that should, and will, exercise the men too greatly, despite grumbles by players including Andy Murray and Pat Cash. The monies were virtually equal, anyway.

Both the Scot and the Australian former champion protest that the men play the best of five sets, to the women's three, and hence work longer hours. But the relevance of that is not obvious. These are elite sportsmen and women. Not labourers.

The argument has been won principally because, together with athletics meetings, Wimbledon is a tournament where both sexes compete at the same time, albeit in separate competitions. If that was not the case, the issue would not even have been up for discussion.

If a strong argument for disparity exists it is that men's tennis has more appeal for spectators. While many of us have been captivated by wonderful performers such as Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King, the reality is that the men's game more readily fills seats. Like virtually all professional sport, that is the principle on which rewards tend to be based; a fact that the All England Club have preferred to ignore.