This weekend marks what is supposed to be one the high points of the football calendar, the third round of the FA Cup. It's the moment when, by tradition, the pampered superstars of the top division are obliged to share pitches often muddy and rutted and sloping with part-time players whose day jobs might involve driving buses or selling insurance. The ingredients are irresistible. And over the 136 years since the competition began, a storehouse of treasured memories has built up, with giant-killing acts such as Hereford beating Newcastle and Colchester beating Leeds embedded in the public memory.
But the Cup is losing its cachet. Upsets are less common, while some top players and managers claim not to care about progressing in the tournament. The number of teams that has won the trophy in recent years can be counted on one hand. Between them, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United have won the Cup in 14 of the past 15 years and Everton, hardly a small club, are the only team to break this tiresome monopoly. There is little wonder the competition arouses dwindling passions.
The standing of the FA Cup has never recovered from Manchester United's decision a few years ago to opt out in order to take part in the money-spinning but meaningless World Club Championship. That said everything about where the most powerful clubs' priorities lay. The widening financial gulf between the top flight and the lower divisions means that even a modest Premiership side such as Reading plan to send out a reserve team for their tie today. Premier League status means far more than an FA Cup victory.
Action is urgently needed to break the stranglehold the top sides exert over the trophy. First, the FA must boost the financial incentives so that teams like Reading will want to take the Cup seriously. At the same time, ticket prices for ties should be reduced in order to prevent the forlorn sight of games that once would have packed in the crowds being played out in front of banks of empty seats. A third restorative would be to offer the FA Cup winners a place in the European Champions League as the Uefa head, Michel Platini, wants rather than it going to the fourth-placed team in the Premiership.
The FA Cup has played too rich a part in the nation's sporting life to be allowed to fade away. It must not be allowed to lose its lustre.