Scrapping FA Cup replays shows the FA’s weakness – the only winners are the whining billionaire owners

From next season, there will be no replays in the FA Cup to satisfy an elite minority with a selfish agenda, while hurting those further down the food chain

Luke Baker
Thursday 18 April 2024 15:16 BST
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Ryan Giggs’s wonder-goal against Arsenal is an iconic FA Cup replay moment
Ryan Giggs’s wonder-goal against Arsenal is an iconic FA Cup replay moment (Getty Images)

The scrapping of all FA Cup replays, as announced by the FA today, may have been an inevitability but it doesn’t make their demise any less sad. There is no longer any surprise at the biggest entities within football getting their own way, with the ill effects on smaller clubs and communities simply seen as unimportant collateral damage, yet every greed-driven change still comes as a gut punch.

Replays had already been removed from the fifth round onwards and the announcement that the first four rounds of the ‘competition proper’ will follow suit from next season was lumped in with other format changes, including all rounds to be played on weekends, the fourth-round, fifth-round and quarter-final weekends to be exclusive of Premier League games and the FA Cup final itself to be moved before the end of the Premier League season.

The biggest clubs, despite having the biggest squads, detested FA Cup replays amid a hectic calendar. They whined loudly enough and for long enough that the authorities eventually buckled to their demands. The trade-off is the Premier League increasing funding to the football pyramid, with up to an additional £33m being earmarked for grassroots football. Yet the damage this move will do is far greater than the effect of any token payment.

Unsurprisingly, the Football Association sold the move as “strengthening the FA Cup format with new and exclusive calendar windows” while FA chief executive Mark Bullingham boldly crowed that “the new schedule ensures the magic of the Cup is protected and enhanced, while working for the whole of the English game.”

The annual debate around ‘the magic of the Cup’ and whether the tournament has lost its lustre is one of the more boring elements of football discourse (although it still beats a good old VAR argument by a long way...) but the audacity of the FA to suggest that scrapping replays actually enhances the competition is staggering.

From a purely sporting perspective, replays are a hugely exciting, deserved reward for a team holding on for a draw in the first tie and have provided some of the FA Cup’s greatest and most iconic moments.

Ronnie Radford’s memorable strike in an FA Cup replay helped Hereford sink Newcastle and sparked a pitch invasion (PA Archive)

Without replays, there is no Ronnie Radford 35-yard piledriver for Hereford against the mighty Newcastle in 1972 that launched the broadcast career of John Motson, there is no Ryan Giggs wonder-goal and frenzied, shirt-twirling celebration against Arsenal in 1999 (and perhaps we wouldn’t know just how hairy the Welshman truly is...) and there is no remarkable comeback from 3-0 down at half-time to win 4-3 for 10-man Man City against Spurs in 2004.

More importantly, replays have provided a vital financial lifeline and huge sporting reward for the underdog – upon whom the entire competition’s magic is predicated. Earning an FA Cup replay by battling to a draw allows fans and players of lower-league and non-league clubs to live their dream by either welcoming footballing giants to their home ground or visiting some of the sport’s greatest cathedrals. The additional TV and gate money can also be the lifeblood of a club, sometimes keeping them afloat for years, and in a time when so many clubs lower down the totem pole are being plunged into financial trouble, taking this revenue stream away is hugely myopic.

This is a view shared by Niall Couper, the chief executive of the Fair Game football reform group, who described the move as “short-sighted” and as “another nail in the coffin for the already crumbling football pyramid”.

The money that Conference National side Exeter City earned from their brilliant 0-0 draw at Old Trafford in 2005 and welcoming a Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney-inspired Manchester United to St James Park in the replay helped lift them out of administration and kickstarted their ascent up the divisions. The hundred of thousands of pounds that eighth-tier Cray Valley Paper Mills got by fighting to a gutsy draw at the Valley in the first round of this season’s competition and earning a home replay against League One side Charlton Athletic, shown live on the BBC, will fund them for the near future.

Try telling Exeter or Cray Valley that a nebulous £33m “to grassroots football” will replace those club-saving windfalls. Money is being taken out of the smaller clubs’ hands to line the pockets of the giants and the little guy is getting screwed. Twas ever thus.

The fact reports are emerging that the EFL was blindsided by this announcement and not properly consulted on the decision, despite their member clubs making up a huge part of the competition, should tell you all you need to know about any claims that this move, and the new £33m, will be in the interests of lower-league sides. The Premier League dictating that replays are also ditched in rounds one and two – before they even enter the competition – is also incredible.

Ryan Giggs’ goal in an FA Cup semi-final replay in 1999 has gne down in folklore (Manchester United/Getty)

Amid ever-increasing debates surrounding player workload, schedules and a congested fixture calendar, perhaps the FA Cup replay’s days have long been numbered. This, of course, doesn’t make it the right decision, and it is telling that while their press release was keen to talk up some of the format changes such as exclusive weekends, the FA did try to slightly deflect blame on the replay issue.

They stated: “The current format, which has no replays from the fifth round onwards, has been extended throughout the ‘Competition Proper’ in light of changes to the calendar driven by the expanded Uefa competitions.”

The Champions League will become a 36-team competition next season with a new-look league format replacing the previous group stages. Premier League teams who are involved will now play eight rounds of games in order to qualify for the knockout stages, an increase on the previous six.

Essentially, the FA seem to be claiming that because the Champions League is expanding, their hands were tied. Not our fault, guv’nor – you need to talk those chaps at Uefa.

There’s plenty of history of the UK blaming Europe for its problems, so maybe that shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. We can only hope that the removal of FA Cup replays is just as much of an unmitigated, slam-dunk success and ushers in the same utopian, sunlit uplands that Brexit has...

The money men at the top of the game will be smiling. They got their way, the FA Cup has been both shortened and diminished as another football tradition is callously removed to serve the interests of the big dogs. The consequences may be stark but they are certainly no longer surprising.

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