Philip Patrick Philip Patrick

Scrapping replays could be the beginning of the end for the FA Cup

Manchester City players celebrate winning the FA Cup in 2023 (Credit: Getty images)

Is time running out for the oldest knock-out tournament of them all? The FA cup‘s obituary has been written a few times in recent years but the much-loved competition has somehow survived. But, with the latest downgrade imposed by the game’s authorities, its status as a major footballing competition and treasured cultural artefact could be in real jeopardy.

From next year, in response to the latest engorgement of the Champion’s League and the calendar war between Uefa and Fifa and the domestic leagues, the FA has announced that not only will there be no replays, but that the final, the traditional culmination of the football season and, once, a truly national event, will be rescheduled, yanked forward to allow a longer summer break. 

For the elite, the FA cup has become a bit of a nuisance

The loss of replay revenue will hit the small clubs hard (they have been promised £33 million in recompense) but it’s the abandonment of the end of season date for the final that might be the bigger blow. The prestigious and usually sun-kissed finale of the season trumped the leagues’ climax, if not perhaps in overall sporting significance then certainly in cultural significance. More than a sporting event, cup final day was a unifying national experience, like St. George’s day or the Queen’s official birthday.

But this fresh devaluation is simply the latest step in a long, sad decline. You would need to be getting on a bit to recall the halcyon days when FA cup ties were every bit as important as league games, and more so for many clubs. And you could plan your whole day around the final, as the BBC clearly expected with their 7-hour marathon build-up. Anyone remember the FA Cup final fan competition ‘It’s a Knockout’?

Determining when exactly the rot established itself is difficult but the first knock was perhaps the advent of regular live TV football. Until the early 1980s, the FA cup final was one of about only half a dozen games a year that were shown live. So starved were we of live footie that I recall as a boy running outside to fetch in my brother to watch an Open University programme on hooliganism which featured a few snippets of action.

Another blow was the decision to use Wembley for semi-finals, which first happened in 1991 and robbed the final of much of its magic. Previously, for many players, an FA or League Cup final was their one chance of playing at the then the holy of holies. And in those pre-premiership days it was a realistic ambition for clubs quite far down the pyramid – three second division clubs won the FA cup between 1973 and 1980. When the semis, play offs and various other naff tournaments (the Sherpa Van trophy?) were granted access to Wembley the currency was devalued.

In any case, Wembley was no longer really Wembley. The demolition of the towers and rebuild of 2007 produced a gleaming, modern, superficially impressive but essentially dull arena barely distinguishable from dozens of others around the world. As a certain Diego Maradona lamented at the time, ‘why couldn’t they just remodel it?’.

Then there was the pressure successfully applied to Manchester United to withdraw from the tournament and join the inaugural Club World Cup tournament in Brazil in the vain hope that sucking up to Fifa would give England a better shout at hosting the 2006 World Cup. It was a clear indication of shifting priorities amongst football’s ruling elite.

But, despite the dodgy stewardship, the FA Cup was in trouble as soon as English football’s gold rush years began attracting players, coaches and owners from around the globe for whom history and traditions meant little. Managers, who could be sacked on a whim, were put into a position where staking their best assets in games without much bearing on their future career prospects made little sense. Suddenly, for the top clubs, it became acceptable to ‘field the kids’ and cup tie victories were seen as more Pyrrhic than glorious. Giant killings aren’t fun when the giants have lost interest.

The Premiership and probably the Championship too are no longer, in any meaningful sense, English leagues. The ‘clubs’ are now simply corporate entities inhabiting the shells of what were once proud local institutions. It’s a ruthless world where sentiment, nostalgia and a respect for tradition are increasingly irrelevant. For the elite, the FA cup has become a bit of a nuisance.

With such a weak defence at the top of the pyramid it is hard to see much of a fight being sustained against the powerful twin-pronged attack of Uefa and Fifa pushing for calendar space for a 32-team Club World Cup and the ‘Swiss style’ Champions’ league. Domestic cup competitions and replays are on the hit list with only one of the former and none of the latter to be tolerated. France has already surrendered.

But what about the fans? It’s a fair bet that the majority, especially of clubs lower down the pyramid (729 teams compete in the FA cup), oppose the supranational ambitions of the governing bodies. Many would like to take back control of the game’s most treasured assets, starting perhaps with a restitution of the FA cup’s prestige and privileges. Perhaps English football needs its own version of Brexit.