Tuesday, February 22, 2011

FA Cup revamp rebuttal

After Crawley Town's gallant display against Manchester United and Leyton Orient's surprising draw with Arsenal, any plans to change the format of England's FA Cup must surely now be thrown in the garbage. The world's pre-eminent domestic cup competition is sacred and should remain so, as notions of the death of "the romance of the cup" became greatly overstated.

For some time, occasional "experts" have suggested that from Round 3 of the Cup the draw should be seeded, ostensibly pitting smaller clubs against larger from that time on. The rationale behind that would be with more big-versus-small clashes, there comes a greater chance of a giant-killing effort from a "minnow". This is complete bunk simply because both the odds and the talent available suggests that it wouldn't lead to more of this melodrama, but only an increase in Goliath moments where impudent would-be Davids are squished by the giant feet of Champions' League clubs. If anything, seeding a draw would rob the Cup of mystery as any potential Crawley Towns or Havant & Waterloovilles unthinkingly know their fate in the third, fourth or fifth-round: likely a Premiership club and odds-on elimination.

It actually happens that small clubs like to come up against their larger counterparts as a match against Chelsea or Liverpool is liable to bring in larger crowds at home and a share of the (suitably large) gate takings when away. This could be preferable to clubs in or nearing administration like Plymouth. But what it does to the plethora of - and names like these are always debatable - well-run clubs like Peterborough, Ipswich or Millwall is rob them of a puncher's chance to advance further in the competition. Better to stay with the current system, where clubs discover their coming opponents mere weeks ahead of schedule.

Plans to change when Cup ties are played to maximise attendances are also clearly an idea by the same crowd who bought us the Collins-class submarine. The FA's former Chief Executive, Ian Watmore, recently suggested that games be played mid-week because he had seen several games played at night of good standard. When considering revamping an institution such as the FA Cup, one must tread very carefully and suggestions like this are dangerous if increasing attendance is the ultimate aim: if crowds are poor for a Bournemouth versus Dag & Red fixture on a weekend in sleet and howling winds, how much improved are they likely to be on a Tuesday night in rain/snow mix and very fresh winds? The answer is fewer attendees, if anything, simply because mid-week equals school for the kids and an automatic decrease in the available market.

The proposition that replays used in case of a draw in the first leg be abolished is also ludicrous. In a recent example, the Chairman of Leyton Orient Barry Hearn has been quoted as saying he would take all his players to Las Vegas as reward for their endeavour in earning a replay against the Gunners at the Emirates stadium. That replay would earn Orient a significant percentage of the gate money which the club say will abolish their seasonal operating loss. By robbing the Cup of replays, not only do you enforce penalty shoot-outs in almost every match, but slam the door in the faces of the small clubs needing those funds to get out of jail. The big clubs are happy with replays as well, with both Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger coming out in support of them for the same reasons: they can allow a big club to get out of jail, albeit not from a financial prison but a footballing one.

The final suggestion mooted for "improving" the FA Cup involves a Champions' League place being awarded to the winner. This suggestion has much more merit than the previous three but is flawed in some ways: if this were in effect now, last year's runners-up would be entitled to a UCL position as the winners, Chelsea, attained automatic qualification. Meaning Portsmouth would be eligible to play in Europe's top club competition amidst a swarm of debts and, early on this season having only sixteen senior players under contract. With UEFA's Financial Fair Play rules about to bite home on many of Europe's largest clubs, it woudn't be a stretch to suggest similar rules could be put in place for FA Cup winners' European entrances: if your books aren't balanced (to a point) or two teams who finished in the EPL's top four play off for the Cup, the position is goes automatically to the fourth-placed Premiership club. This plan seems more satisfying than the previous three because it would add another air of mystery to the end of the season: would the Cup winner make Europe? Or would the team who came in fourth? This is unlikely to occur however, as should a runner-up make Europe, then their performances on the continent would affect England's UEFA coefficient and bad displays especially could see the country robbed of it's fourth UCL slot.

The first three suggestions: abolishing replays, playing midweek and seeding the draw from the third round on, mean one of two things. The first option is the FA have no concept of what they actually want to do with The Cup - reinforce the larger teams or smaller? Attendance or romance? Finance or football? If this is true, the answer is simple: there's not enough data to suggest what clubs or fans want from The Cup so it's best to do nothing until a clear picture appears. It's in no immediate danger of falling into irrelevancy, so best not to fix something which isn't broken.

The second alternative is that the story is media-driven, with no FA substance whatsoever, peddled by networks and newspapers who want only to write about the Gerrards, Rooneys and Terrys of this world and not, it seems, the football of lower tiers which props up the planet's most famous league. The narrative of many lower league clubs make fascinating reading: Bournemouth's lack of money hasn't stopped them charging to the top of League One and their 32 year-old manager Eddie Howe being poached by Premiership-aspirant Burnley. Or Gus Poyet's men at Brighton, destined for a spot in the Championship for the first year in who knows how long? Have you heard about Norwich's rise from League One also-rans to Championship Playoff team? Even in the top division there are stories to tell: Newcastle's rise from the ashes and the everlasting inquiry into Ian Holloway's sanity spring instantly to the fingertips.

Perhaps you've heard of some of these tales. Perhaps not.

Surely football for its own sake should be enough.

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