THIRD round day and another reminder of the symmetry of seasons. A year ago to something around the day, Liverpool FC were paired with Exeter City, also of the Football League’s nether regions.
It remains an eternal shame that this once great cup competition, and its once great set of opening round fixtures, is reduced to being something of a sideshow. Maybe this is becoming a boringly relentless observation to a generation who never knew the FA Cup that their forebears did. Maybe ‘we’ need to get over it. But I don’t want get over it. It was something magnificent.
In an era where all eyes are only on the biggest prizes – the league title and the Champions League – the likes of the FA Cup, and its even uglier sister the League Cup, now just serve a function. They provide respite. Liverpool played three Premier League games in seven days over the holiday period. That there now opens up a near two-week gap between the last of those and the next fixture (at Manchester United on Jan 15) represents something of a welcome winter break for Jürgen Klopp’s overworked first 11.
The fall from grace of the domestic cup competitions allows the modern manager to take chances with his selections without risking supporter or employer wrath. The double benefit for plate-spinning bosses is that the cups also provide an opportunity to ease frustrations within indulgently deep squads. Further, the increasingly weighty investments in academies create their own pressure to provide results, and the FA Cup third round can nowadays be seen as something of a prestigious valve.
We’ll enjoy watching ‘the kids’ get a run out in front of 54,000 on Sunday. It will be an intriguing glimpse into the future and all that. Shame though. Shame the big clubs, the powers that be, and all other vested interests, couldn’t get their heads together and work out a way to make the cup work again. It would be a very good thing if the FA Cup regained its stature. When I was young, it was only very slightly the poorer relation of the big two – the league and European Cup. Cup winners were held in the highest esteem. Treated as all but champions-elect for the next season to come, at times.
The FA Cup final was simply the greatest day on the football calendar in the UK. The semi-finals were the second greatest days. There were no Super Sundays or big league head-to-heads that came close. Even the European Cup final felt like something of a private affair. The entire country didn’t rouse itself for those events in the manner it reserved for the FA Cup’s big occasions.
We could be here all night as to why the cup isn’t what it once was, but surely it would only be a wonderful thing if its prestige could be resurrected? There’s not enough fun to go round with just the two big trophies to aim at. Imagine if the FA Cup came back on the scene. Imagine if it meant the world to win it. That’s 50 per cent more important things to win. If title hopes faded, redemption could be found in the prospect of a cup run and the dream of watching your team at Wembley. Wembley. Wemberlee. There was simply nothing like it. Just getting there was such a big win. Winning FA Cup semi-finals was an incredible feeling. Losing them – simply devastating.
It would be nice if we as fans could just somehow deem the FA Cup relevant again, but we don’t pick the teams. It is the managers that gild or dishonour tournaments. Those big shots could get together at some secret managers’ Illuminati-style hideaway and plot the resurrection of a footballing great.
One of the biggest moments in the FA Cup’s history was (in the late ’90s) when Manchester United’s Alex Ferguson decided to pitch pragmatism ahead of romanticism. His all-conquering side were facing war on four fronts – the league, the Champions League, the World Club Championship and the FA Cup. He felt something had to give. I don’t doubt that he looked deep into his soul before making the decision to absent his first team from duty in that year’s third round. After all, he was a man who owed the FA Cup. His redemption and survival at the Manchester United helm was hugely due to the alternative path to glory offered by that competition. Ferguson, though, looked into his soul and still took the decision that sold the world’s oldest cup competition down the swanee.
After that point the cup was doomed. The United manager had sought to gain a competitive advantage by disrespecting it. His peers had no choice but to follow suit. Their alternative would have been to concede ground in the big two competitions. The trickle down effect leads us to the equilibrium we take for granted today. A stasis wherein, it’s not just managers chasing the main prizes that rest players in the FA Cup, but those facing relegation battles, or chasing Europa League places. Every fucker has kicked the cup in the balls on the way out.
Much as I’d love my coven of managers to reverse this decline, there is only one god that can reorder the English football universe – money. Only good old-fashioned libertarian enlightened self-interest can save the cup. Simply put a big pot of dough on the table as prize money. Throw in the prospect of Champions League qualification perhaps. Turn heads in the boardrooms. The Premier League could fund this from that enormous pot of TV cash they get. It’s a mad world we live in where there’s maybe more riches to be earned by clubs seeking to climb from 10th to seventh in the league, than there is in winning the English Football Association Cup.
Let’s see the FA put up a £50million prize for the cup winner. That would be a start. It might make actually winning a trophy at least the equal of finishing fourth. Witness poor Arsene Wenger. He prioritised keeping Arsenal in the top European competition (as an end in itself) over silverware. That meant a decade in which a very talented, well-managed, and successful football team did not add to their historic trophy roster. Ironically, Wenger and Arsenal have only just returned from these trophy-less wastelands by bagging back-to-back FA Cups. They should be building statues of the current manager and his team for this achievement. They won’t be though.
Reanimating the FA Cup need not just be a romantic dream. Football, despite its success, lives in a competitive marketplace. How many worldwide Liverpool fans this weekend, faced with the prospect of watching Liverpool FC’s reserves play Plymouth, might choose to swerve their TV screens and do something else instead? Go to the cinema. Go shopping. Go out for a meal. These things all cost money and all end up being alternatives to each other. I don’t think the global ratings for Liverpool v Plymouth are going to set any records. They would be higher if Liverpool’s first team was on show, though. And not just on show, but motivated to make demolishing minnows the start of a journey that might end in a day out in the Wembley sunshine in May.
Greater public interest equals higher TV ratings, higher matchday revenue, greater sponsor interest, greater TV money, and creates a financial cycle that, in turn, facilitates the offering of bigger prize money to the ultimate victor. What a thing it would be if the FA Cup final was the biggest prize money event in sport. It may seem a grubby way to get our cup back, but it’s a series of victim-less ‘crimes’ that might facilitate it. The Man took the cup from us. We can use his greed to get it back.
The raw red 11 to see off Plymouth: Karius; Alexander-Arnold, Lucas, Gomez, Moreno; Stewart, Wijnaldum, Ejaria; Ojo, Woodburn, Origi.
Referee: Paul Tierney
Odds: Liverpool 1-5, Draw 15-2, Plymouth 22-1
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