The FA Cup: The old survivor is still alive and kicking
In the spring of 1991 when the British businessman Gerald Ratner joked at a function that the jewelry upon which he had built his fortune was “total crap”. It very nearly ruined him.
In summer of 1999 when the Football Association offered Manchester United the chance to opt out of the FA Cup that coming season, it appeared the first step towards their own version of “doing a Ratner.”
United, fresh from their incredible treble of Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League titles, were the FA’s trump card in England’s bid to host the 2006 World Cup and by taking part in FIFA’s inaugural Club World Championship the chance to win political favour was too great to ignore. The trouble was the tournament in Brazil clashed with the third round of the world’s oldest, and most famous, knock-out competition.
United’s proposal to enter the competition at the fifth round was rejected leaving them with little alternative but to accept the invitation to take part in South America. With them went the FA Cup’s defending champions, the best team in Europe and the best PR machine around.
The question it posed was even more damming: If the FA can pack off Manchester United, what does that say about how they view their own tournament? - about as much as FIFA did about giving England the World Cup.
Ever since that decision the FA Cup has struggled with both its identity within the game and whether it really offered any remaining authentic value to the footballing fraternity, other that its romanticism.
The continued explosion and ascension of the Premier League’s importance further denuded it. Teams in the hunt for the title didn’t really care. Teams fighting to stay in the division didn’t really care. Heck, teams in the Championship trying to get into the top flight didn’t really care. All prioritized chasing the financial oxygen of the Premier League over the fuddy duddy FA Cup. It was getting in the way. Seldom was a question asked about a team having a cup run without mentioning it in the context of a “distraction”. It seemed in the aftermath of 1999 everyone began to fall out of love with the competition - a concept previously considered heresy. FA Cup? yeah sweet FA.
Now, though, 13 years later a weekend of ties so exhilarating, so undulating and so utterly magical has shown the old survivor is back to its beguiling, inveigling best.
Over 48 hours, we saw non-league Luton Town beat Norwich City from the Premier League, Leeds United of the Championship defeat Tottenham, MK Dons knock out top-flight Queen’s Park Rangers and, perhaps most thrillingly, Oldham of the third tier beat a strong Liverpool side. It was typical, boys-own stuff. Like the FA Cup used to be.
Ironically it is the continued dominance of the Premier League behemoth that has, ultimately, benefitted the FA Cup.
The Premier League and its riches are still king, and always will be as long as the cash lasts, but the FA Cup has found a way to prosper. It has settled into its niche. Smaller clubs are thriving against bigger ones that continue to field weakened teams in the pursuit of more important priorities.
This year’s fireworks has ensured at least nine of the 16 teams left in the competition are from outside the top flight. If Brentford can win their replay with Chelsea, it could be into double figures. Chairmen of the big boys will always prefer the Premier League, that is natural. More and more chairmen of the lesser clubs are daring to dream. Cup runs need not be an unwanted distraction any more.
It has taken the best part of 13 years but, thanks to the handicapping influence of the Premier League, it is on its way back.