It’s that time of the year again. The FA Cup 3rd Round. For non-league fans the cup has been rumbling on since August but January, and the third round, is when the media and general public start to take notice. For those teams competing in the early rounds, just reaching this stage is akin to lifting the trophy, as they hope for a plum draw away to one of the Premier League giants and the finance and attention that comes with it. If they’re lucky a TV slot would also be welcomed to swell those coffers. At the third round stage just 20 lucky teams from League One down to the lowest reaches of the semi-professional game join the 44 elite clubs from the top two divisions of the English game. Of the 20 teams to have successfully navigated round 2, the majority will be made up of League One and Two sides. Barring the odd miracle, the third round onwards is the preserve of the professional, and for some where the fun ends.
Some of my earliest, and happiest, childhood memories relate to watching FA Cup finals. I remember the build-up taking up the whole day, showing the cup finalists’ “Road to Wembley”, the players arriving at the stadium and then checking the pitch out in their new suits, the team hotel and the cup final songs. “Cup final day” used to be a big deal, whereas now it feels like an afterthought, just another game in a bloated schedule, it’s importance placed beneath the final day of the Premier League, the Champions League final and whatever international tournament is due to take place later that summer.
You often hear about how the FA Cup has lost it’s shine. Is there one specific thing to blame, was it inevitable or is it a variety of factors? Most lazy “anyone-but-United” commenters may blame Manchester United for pulling out of the FA Cup in 2000 to compete in the inaugural Club World Cup in Rio de Janeiro. The reality is that the FA themselves shafted their own showpiece event in order to further England’s bid of hosting the World Cup in 2006. Incidentally, it didn’t help! Since what happened in Brazil in 2000, several occurences have further damaged the cup’s reputation, with the majority of factors being for commercial reasons. Here are 5 factors to blame for the devaluation of the once famous cup competition.
- Wembley – English football’s showpiece events were moved to Cardiff’s Millenium Stadium whilst Wembley was being renovated. Actually, that should read “rebuilt”. The powers that be still talk about the history made at Wembley but the fact is the new stadium is completely brand new, and in a different position to the old one. It is not a continuation of the old stadium. At the old place the seats were uncomfortable and the toilets were ankle-deep in piss. It needed a revamp. But for a certain generation all their memories come from the old place, so it’s hard to feel the same about the alleged “revamped” Wembley. Devaluing the cup by playing semi-finals hasn’t helped, forcing (especially Northern) teams to trek to Wembley twice in the space of a few weeks, but that concrete bowl won’t pay for itself!
- Kick-off times – The traditional 3pm kick-off is a thing of the past, changed to 5.30 to cater for international audiences that were already in love with the cup in the first place. You ask foreign footballers, chance is they watched and loved the FA Cup in their younger days, and was probably a factor in them wanting to play on these shores. The game also used to be the final game of the season, a culmination of ten months hard graft. Now, the final is moved around and sometimes takes place before the final day of the Premier League season.
- Emirates – Surely it is a conflict of interest that the team who has won the cup for the past two seasons, Arsenal, now shares a sponsor with the FA Cup. The “Emirates Sponsored FA Cup” doesn’t exactly invoke childhood memories and dreams of glory does it.
- TV & The Premier League / Champions League – These competitions have become a marketing monster over the last fifteen-twenty years, and cash cows on an unprecedented scale, leaving the FA Cup in the shade. As finance dictates modern football, most clubs competing on all fronts put the FA Cup at the bottom of the priority list. Nearly all of these games are televised, meaning that the FA Cup final in particular (at one stage probably the only game people would see on TV) has less shine.
- Predictability – Shocks do still happen. Wigan Athletic beating Manchester City in 2013, and being relegated in the same season, was quite frankly unbelievable. But when it comes to finals and semi-finals we are consistently seeing the same old suspects. 17 of the last 28 finalists have been either Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool or Manchester United. If you work out the odds it is pretty much guaranteed that one of those sides will be contesting the final this year, In fact, only one final from the last fourteen years has taken place without their lofty presence, when Portsmouth and Cardiff faced off in 2008.
Love or hate what the FA Cup has become the 3rd round, and the draw, remains one of the undoubted highlights of the football calendar. The lowest-ranked remaining teams dream of a plum tie that will set them up for seasons to come. The recent success of Salford City and Altrincham in the first round show that upsets do still happen, and whilst that possibility still exists the cup will still intrigue, even if the final itself is a one-sided procession, at least for a short time after that draw is made fans and players alike feel like anything is possible.The FA Cup 3rd round takes place this weekend and no doubt we’ll all be watching.
Follow Dan on Twitter @winkveron