“The magic of the cup” is a phrase every sports broadcasting network loves to throw around when the FA Cup makes its annual appearance. Yet, if the modern footballing world is telling us anything, it is that we are moving further away from what the supposedly best cup competition in the world should represent.
Whilst few would disagree that the FA cup has lost what was once referred to as its “magic”, the debate revolves not around whether it is actually gone, but rather who is to blame. Disregarding the cup is a sensation which only seems to exist in England.
In Scotland, the greatest honour a team can have is lifting the domestic treble – the League Cup, Scottish Cup and the title itself, although this opportunity is almost always restricted to Rangers and Celtic owing to the disparity of size, resources and quality of these two clubs in comparison to the rest of the league.
The prioritising of the Champions League is one of the main reasons the top Premier League sides don’t field their strongest outfits.That being said, clubs across Europe, such as Barcelona and Real Madrid, still put out strong sides in their domestic cup competitions. Like Scotland, the aim of completing a double or treble is central to the ambition of a lot of clubs.
On one level, it is perhaps understandable why Premier League clubs do this – it is practically impossible to win everything on offer. What is markedly different with regards to the Premier League in comparison to other leagues around the world, is that sides lower down the table also disregard the cup, despite the fact they are unlikely able to make a bid at a title challenge themselves.
For instance, despite the fact they have acted differently this year, last season saw Leicester exit the competition at the hands of league two opposition via Tranmere Rovers, whilst Everton were dispatched by Championship side Millwall and it is only now, in Jurgen Klopp’s fourth full season in charge of Liverpool, that they have won two successive FA cup fixtures.
This is not to say that teams can’t have bad days or that things can go against them occasionally, but ‘cup-sets’ often seem to come as the result of playing a weakened side in these competitions. Managers often give a somewhat blasé post-match reaction; one you feel they would not give had a costly result impacted their shot at European qualification.
The Premier League now exists on its own playing field, so separate from the rest of the footballing community, including those leagues which exist just below, that, at least for the clubs further down the table, survival is the priority.
The Championship is often seen as damning for a club (just ask Stoke, Leeds or Sunderland), such is the financial difference within the English footballing pyramid.The financial playing field exists in such a manner that domestic trophies are clearly not prioritised by club hierarchies either.
To anyone who disagrees, it is worth remembering the fate of managers Louis Van Gaal and Antonio Conte, whose cup triumphs with Manchester United and Chelsea respectively were not enough to let them keep their jobs. Similarly, no pressure was lessened at all on Arsene Wenger towards the end of his Arsenal tenure despite winning three FA Cups in the space of four years, he still faced the sack on account of his failure to gain a place in any European competition.
If there was ever a marker of the different ambitions of a manager and the board whom they work under, it is their attitude towards these domestic trophies. It’s clear that it’s something Conte, Guardiola, Van Gaal and Wenger have all wanted to win in recent years and yet it is never something they seem to get credit for. Whilst the desired level of financial reward is different for all Premier League clubs, whether it is based on staying in the division or winning it, money is nonetheless the priority.
It is something that has been exacerbated in recent years though. For instance, following his side’s 1-0 loss home loss to Leeds United during his tenure as Man Utd manager, Sir Alex Fergusson declared the result shocking and not good enough. Fergusson is albeit an extreme example – a manager who had the desire to win everything and anything that was available to him.
Compare this with Watford manager Nigel Pearson’s reaction to his side’s capitulation despite being 3-0 up against league one Tranmere and then exiting in the subsequent replay. “Not a priority for us” was Pearson’s simple and honest answer. Whilst some found this honesty refreshing, the reason his club is prioritising keeping themselves in the Premier League is ultimately the financial reward, in spite of the joy all fans must have felt the previous season where they reached the final under Javi Gracia.
Trophies are rare in football, only really available to a precious few who can sustain the challenge. The FA cup was supposed to provide something different; sadly, the Premier League’s financial state seems to be taking that away. Of course, my own personal motivation for this article stems from Jurgen Klopp’s recent decision regarding his side’s FA cup replay against Shrewsbury, following his side’s surrendering of a 2-0 lead in the initial tie.
The reverse fixture was scheduled right in the middle of Liverpool’s mid-season break after a gruelling schedule over the Christmas period as well as through January. Thus, rather than fielding any senior players, Klopp chose to let the club’s under 23’s take on Shrewsbury as well as letting their coach, Neil Critchley, give the orders from the touchline. With the exception of James Milner in the dug-out, there was not a single senior member of staff present. Inevitably, the German manager was accused of disrespecting the Cup. Remarkably, Liverpool’s youth side was to win 1-0 on the night of the replay thanks to an own-goal from Shrewsbury’s centre-half. Of course, football can never be without a debate and, despite the win, debates rage over Klopp’s team selection.
Then again, if he had fielded his strongest eleven, and beat Shrewsbury by a more comfortable margin, it would just have sparked further controversy over the gap in quality between the Premier League and those below them. Leading on from this, we must ask if there ever was really such a thing as the magic of the cup in the first place?
Of course, it has given us some memorable ‘cup-sets’ as they are commonly known, the brilliant scandal of non-league goalkeeper Wayne Shaw influencing betting markets by eating a pie live on television against Arsenal, but when’s the last time it actually ended without one of the now traditional ‘top six’ coming out on top?
Since the beginning of this century, only twice have the winners of the FA cup not been Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United or Arsenal. Of course, for the smaller clubs, it is unlikely that their realistic ambition is actually to lift the trophy at Wembley and a tie against Premier League opposition can provide a financial boost that is the equivalent of a footnote on a top-flight club financial statement.
Shrewsbury won’t forget clawing back a 2-0 deficit against the world champions nor will Leeds forget their memorable victory over Manchester United in 2010 and neither they should.
Is it also possible that the media and pundits themselves should take some semblance of responsibility? It is for this reason that managers often find themselves in a catch-22. For instance, the divisive Paul Merson recently went on a passionate debate about how Pep Guardiola cannot be considered the best manager in the world due to his side’s performance in the Premier League this season.
Leaving aside the fact that nobody in the history of Europe’s top six leagues has made a start like Liverpool’s, Merson was disregarding the fact that City are still in contention for three trophies, one of which they have already reached the final in for the third successive year. This is the catch I mentioned earlier.
When managers don’t turn up, like Jurgen Klopp against Shrewsbury, some see it as a stick to beat them with; when they frequently put out strong sides as Guardiola does, it does not really seem considered to be an achievement in the eyes of many pundits.
People’s attitudes towards the cup will always be inconsistent. Some still see it as the biggest cup competition in the world and something all teams should strive towards; others see it as a relic of the past, a nostalgia trip of 80s and 90s football that the BBC can pull out highlights packages of when a fallen giant takes on one of the big boys.
Sadly though, as with the majority of footballing decisions these days, everything comes back to financial gain. It seems the cup now serves as an example of the growing distance between fans and the clubs they support.
Watford, as mentioned earlier, probably serve as the best example of this. Last year seen them go all the way in the FA cup, providing fans with the memory of a semi-final they’ll never forget. This year they’ve had to sacrifice that for fear of the consequences of the drop.
Perhaps though, it’s really a generational thing. After all, the most excitement that seems to come from the cup nowadays is the nostalgia. Every year stats are rolled out about the last time one side beat another. Sadly, it is this same nostalgia that is going to continue to define cup competitions for years to come.