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The magic of the FA Cup returns?

Posted on 13/12 by Joe Gann

The magic of the FA Cup returns?
2015 FA Cup winners Arsenal

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The FA Cup third round draw, which took place this week is always a notable date in the footballing calendar. It generates interest amongst football fans up and down the land as the Premier League giants join the fray. One of the most alluring aspect of this draw is that it’s the first opportunity for the underdogs to challenge the big boys.

Although there were five all Premiership ties- the standout pairing being Tottenham Hotspur hosting table topping Leicester City- there were few genuine heavy weight confrontations. Instead, the match-up which elicited arguably the most attention was the fixture which will see Exeter City from League two hosting Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.

It is a peculiarity that only the FA Cup can provide: how a game featuring two teams standing on either side of a footballing chasm- which on the face of it looks like a foregone conclusion- can generate such interest. It is the possibility to see a giant toppled that appeals most and makes for compelling viewing. Ties such as Sutton United beating Coventry City, Hereford United overcoming Newcastle United and Wrexham knocking out Arsenal are all unforgettable instances where the ‘magic of the cup’ was at its most intoxicating. Such memorable events are entered into the history books and achieve legendary status.

In recent years, the FA Cup has seen a decline in prioritisation amongst many clubs. Many see league ambitions as the ultimate consideration. Whether that’s Championship pursuits, European qualification or relegation battles. In the past, the Cup has been viewed as a happy distraction; where a good run can do wonders for morale, or in some cases actually rescue a campaign from disaster.

Since the dawn of the Premier League era though, football has taken on a completely different characteristic; whereby the slick promotion and polished marketing of the Premier league and Champions league has left the FA Cup behind in a brutal modernisation of the game. The nature of contemporary football’s obsession with increasing revenue streams through sponsorship, broadcasting and ticket price increases have all contributed to the erosion of the old fashioned notion of the simple glory of cup success.

Various factors can be considered when assessing the demotion in the public’s affection of the oldest football competition in the world; the sponsorship of the Cup which began in the 1994/95 season, the juggling of kick off times, the decision to broadcast the game on subscription television, the financial decision to play the semi-finals at Wembley. All can be listed as contributing factors as to why the public’s affection was drained away from what was formerly the pinnacle of English football.

They have all played a part in diluting the values of history, tradition and glamour that made the FA Cup completely unique. These aspects of the game are alien to what the cup represents, traditionalists were appalled at what seemed to be a departure down the route the Premier League and Champions League had chosen. The build-up used to last a week; watching on a Grandstand special was an annual event that no football fan would miss.

There were the rare insights; featuring player interviews at the team hotel, and horrendous forays into the music world in the form of club songs, long before the days where social media saturation meant that all mystique disappeared. There is also the European qualification issue. The lure of the Champions League has ensured that participation in the Europa league is seen as very much the consolation prize in a second rate continental competition. Teams that qualify by virtue of league placing or as cup runners up can generally be seen treating their involvement the following year with disdain.

League positon has translated to the cup more often than not; the bigger teams with more resources and larger playing staff have generally used that to their advantage, especially when implementing squad rotation at crucial times in the season. Over the last two decades, the top league’s most successful teams have also dominated the cup competitions. In the last twenty years, at least one of Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea or Liverpool have appeared in seventeen finals; with two of them facing off in six finals within the same period.

Arsenal are going into this year’s competition hoping to become only the third team in history to win the trophy three times in a row –Wanderers F.C (1876-78), and Blackburn Rovers (1884-86)- are the other two.

However, in recent years, teams from lower down the table have shown increasing motivation to put their name on the trophy. Wigan Athletic’s incredible 2013 victory over Manchester City was without doubt the biggest FA Cup final shock since Wimbledon’s crazy gang humiliated champions Liverpool in 1988. Following on from Wigan’s triumph, Hull City and Aston Villa contested subsequent finals -2014 and 2015 respectively.

Could this be a slight shift in the distribution of the domestic awards? It would be refreshing to see teams from lower down the pecking order vying for the top prizes once again. West Ham United were the last team to win the trophy from outside the top division, when they defeated Arsenal in 1980; indeed only eight teams have ever performed that particular feat.

Next year’s ground breaking television deal, worth an incredible £5.136 billion, will help teams outside the upper echelon to keep hold of their prized assets and help to maintain a healthy competitive element within the top league. We have already seen evidence of that levelling of the playing field this season, which has provided some remarkable upsets and a welcome destabilisation of the status quo. Maybe this influx of money will help close the gap between the established top four and the rest, which can only be a benefit to the game. Some of that money will also inevitably trickle down to the lower levels as English football enters a period of unprecedented wealth.

Aside from an increasingly healthy competition, another positive for the people who remain fascinated by the tournament is the impressive figures broadcasters continue to release. The fourth round action from last year’s competition saw record viewing numbers across the broadcasting channels; more than 26 million viewers tuned in over the course of the fourth round weekend as two of the favourites for the competition; Manchester City and Chelsea fell victim to lower league teams in a memorable bout of giant-killing heroics.

Bradford City hit four against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, while Middlesboro overcame champions City at the Etihad. The FA cup final returned to the BBC after a six-year absence with a peak audience of nearly 9 million viewers for Arsenal’s 4-0 win over Aston Villa last season; the BBC won back the rights to the competition last year in a joint £200m deal with BT Sport.

This season has also shown that the public’s apparent eagerness for a cup upset has not diminished; Salford City’s recent tie against Notts County pulled in 3.5 million viewers, remarkable for a game moved to a Friday night timeslot. Even more encouraging was the fact that the figure was double the amount that tuned in to watch a Premier League game featuring Aston Villa and Manchester City on the same weekend.

The healthy viewing figures are an indication that the appetite for domestic cup action, and hopefully a shock or two, is still alive and well. It is probably naive to think that the romance of the cup could buck the trend of the all-encompassing pursuit of money, but it would be nice to hope that it could. There’s something reassuring about the idea of a return to prominence of football’s original number one trophy.





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