Here's how to save the FA Cup...

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It's FA Cup final weekend, one of the highlights of the domestic calendar, but is the competition in irreparable decline? Reading fan Jon Keen has a few ideas on how to reinvigorate football's oldest competition...

This weekend sees the final of the FA Cup, and although many would say that this year's Cup has been one of the more interesting in recent seasons, there can be no real doubt that this competition is a shadow of what it used to be.  Back in the day it was a prize of equal stature to the league championship, and coverage of Final day was "event television", starting in the early morning and dominating the day's schedule.

The relative decline from those days is a well-discussed area which I won’t cover again, except to say that it’s mostly down to changes in the structure of the game in England and the way we consume football these days.  Never again will the Cup Final be the only club match televised live all season and therefore the only chance of the year to see famous players.

Nor are we likely to be in a position where the prize for winning the cup makes it worth seriously pursuing for many clubs - whilst the winning club might receive £1.8m, that's a paltry sum compared to the £61.95m prize money and TV rights that QPR received for finishing bottom of the Premier League. And Aston Villa, who finished three places higher not only received £3.7m more than QPR, but get another year’s worth of Premier League money too. The prestige of a Cup run is all very nice, but no wonder club’s moneymen want to devote all their resources to Premier League survival. 

In a similar way, Championship clubs fighting for promotion to the Premier League, or for their survival at that level, take the same attitude - “It would be lovely to win, but let’s not direct too much precious resource at it” - since league income is far more significant than anything the FA Cup can offer.  Supporters love a Cup run, but club accountants know that glory won’t pay many players’ wage bills.

Injuries and player fatigue are regularly cited as reasons why managers make multiple changes to teams for Cup games, and it’s getting harder and harder to actually fit Cup matches into the calendar, especially in years where international tournaments truncate this. There’s an ever-increasing pressure from many to scrap Cup replays completely – last year both Jose Mourinho and Jamie Carragher, amongst others, called for this.

Many supporters have been showing a slowly decreasing interest in the FA Cup too.  Attendances for FA Cup matches have declined over the past 15 years, except for those games where enlightened clubs realise that reasonably priced tickets help keep attendances up – often giving supporters who can’t afford or can’t get tickets for league matches a rare chance to see their team. 

Despite all of this, there shouldn’t be total doom and gloom about the state of the FA Cup –there still are things that make this a wonderful competition.  The format is basically sound, and the number of giant-killings this season remind us of where the real appeal of the FA Cup is.  It’s in seeing teams of different levels pitched together, seeing lower-league carthorses battle it out with the so-called thoroughbreds.

So how do we change the FA Cup?

I have a couple of ideas, they certainly aren’t FSF policy, and they’re bound to be controversial, but I do think they’re worth discussing.

The first is to try and build on what makes the Cup most attractive, which is matches between clubs from different levels of the game.  I utterly hate the idea of any kind of seeding of teams or tinkering with the draw – the beauty of the Cup is that the draw is so simple and so random.  Instead, why don’t we change the stage at which clubs from the Championship enter the competition?

Why not have the Championship clubs enter the draw in the First Round and Premier League clubs one round later? It would greatly increase the chances of teams from different divisions meeting each other, and the number of giant-killing opportunities, without significantly altering the spirit or ethos of the competition.

Of course, critics will say that this will only increase fixture congestion, but my second idea would resolve this.  I think it’s inevitable that one day the pressure to get rid of replays completely will get too strong and we’ll lose these – and that would be a real tragedy. Not only would it take away much of the drama, but it’d deprive smaller clubs of the invaluable boost to their income that comes from a replay won by holding a bigger club to a draw at home.  So my proposal would be something of a compromise – ease fixture congestion by scrapping replays in Cup ties, but only in ties between clubs at the same level.  I think it’s critical that replays between clubs at different levels are sacrosanct.

I know that people are emotionally attached to Cup replays, but we’ve already lost those at semi-final level, I think it’s inevitable we’ll lose more, and I’d rather lose them in the least interesting games straightway, if it meant we could safeguard them where the cup is at its most interesting – where we have the magic of potential giant-killing and financial benefits for smaller clubs.

This formula could apply at all rounds of the Cup right from the earliest qualifying rounds – where the same principle of lower interest in “same-level” matches equally applies, but it would have the greatest effect on fixture congestion in the later rounds of the Cup, where most of the teams left in the competition are Premier League teams so there are more likely to be “same-level” matches.  And this is precisely when fixture scheduling problems are at their greatest, with Premier League clubs often involved in European competitions.

If I was writing this two months ago I’d have also added a third suggestion, that Wembley shouldn’t be the venue for the FA Cup semi-finals. But having been to one this year, with my club Reading reaching this stage for the first time in 88 years, my mind has been changed. Yes, going to Wembley for a semi-final does reduce the magic of the final itself a bit, but on grounds of capacity alone I now have to say that Wembley is the best place to meet supporter demand.

The tragedy is that well over 10,000 supporters who went to the semi won’t be there for the final, due to the number of tickets that go to Club Wembley holders and the “football family”. The fact that each club is allocated just 25,000 tickets for the final, compared to nearly 32,000 for the semi-final is an outrage that simply must be addressed. Yes, there is a need for The FA to reward people who give up their time, but why not the Community Shield or international games, for instance?

I love the FA Cup, and it pains me how much it’s lost its prestige and importance over recent years, and I do think my changes would improve the competition greatly without vastly changing its format or ethos as they concentrate on what’s best about the Cup.

So come on FA, let’s: 

    • Bring the bigger clubs in earlier to increase giant-killing opportunities;
    • Allow matches between clubs at the same level to be settled in a single game, whilst protecting replays in ties between clubs from different levels;
    • Sort out the current mess of Cup final ticket allocations.

The FSF blog is the space to challenge perceived wisdom, entertain readers and inform our members. The views expressed are those of the author and they don't necessarily represent FSF policy and (pay attention journalists) shouldn't be attributed to the FSF.

Thanks to Action Images for the image used in this blog.