It’s that time of year again... time for Ian Doyle to examine whether the FA Cup still has its sheen
TRADITIONALLY it is one of the most celebrated and eagerly-awaited weekends of the season.
But as our Merseyside clubs prepare to embark on the road to Wembley, the question must be asked: does the FA Cup really matter anymore?
The slow death of the oldest domestic cup competition in the world – the first tournament was held 16 years before the Football League started in 1888 – has been touted ever since the introduction of the all-powerful Premier League.
For some, though, the Cup retains the prestige and glamour that once made the final the showpiece occasion of the English football calendar.
Graeme Sharp appeared in four FA Cup finals for Everton during the 1980s and scored the opening goal in the 2-0 win over Watford in 1984.
“It’s still a massive competition,” he says. “People have called it the biggest club cup competition in the world and I still believe that. It’s a big prize.
“It’s a day out at Wembley for the supporters. I know that it’s all about the Champions League these days, but to win the FA Cup is still an honour.
“You talk to the majority of British players and it’s an honour they want to pick up.”
The influx of foreigners during the Premier League era has arguably contributed to the sheen being dimmed somewhat from the Cup. For generations, every budding footballer in England – and the rest of the British Isles – grew up wanting to walk out at Wembley in the FA Cup final.
Sharp was no different. But, inevitably, it isn’t the same for many of those from overseas, who are more seduced by the lure of playing in Europe, the route to which is easier through a high league placing.
“When I was a kid, you wanted to watch the cup final,” he says. “You wanted to watch the final on telly and you wanted to be there in front of 100,000 people.
“I think maybe the increase in foreigners maybe has something to do with the Cup maybe not being what it was.
“But winning the FA Cup gives you entry into Europe and teams should always want to win silverware.
“Even Manchester United, if you ask them if they want to win it, they’d say yes. I’m sure it still means a lot to the likes of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs even though they’ve been there and won it already, and it should do.”
United, the most successful team in the competition with 11 wins, were involved in one of the most damaging blows to the FA Cup, the Football Association placing sufficient pressure on the then holders to withdraw from the tournament in 2000 and instead travel to play in the inaugural FIFA Club World Championship.
It’s one of several decisions made by the ruling body that have hardly helped their prestigious competition.
Multiple replays, once one of the great charms of the Cup, have long since been banished, while holding semi-finals at Wembley to help pay for the building of the new ground has diminished the achievement of playing at the national stadium.
Then there is the curious decision to no longer have the FA Cup final as the finale of the season.
“Moving the Cup final from the last game of the season was simply crazy,” agrees Sharp. “The FA have got it wrong. “The FA Cup final was always the showcase, the end of the season that everybody looked towards.
“The FA were wrong to move it, but then I’m sure they could come back and say they were under pressure from Premier League managers who want players fit for European finals.
“But the FA Cup should have its special day at the end of the season, but unless the bigwigs look at it again then that won’t be happening.”
The growth of television has no doubt also had an effect. As recent as the early 1980s, the FA Cup final was one of very few live club games shown on the box, adding to its mystique.
Nowadays, though, it’s almost impossible to find a Premier League game that isn’t being broadcast, whether it be on Sky, ESPN or one of countless illegal – but easily found – internet streams.
The pressure to stay in the lucrative Premier League and the clamour to reach it has had a similarly detrimental effect on the FA Cup.
While the strength in depth at leading clubs means they can rotate resources, the same cannot be said of most other teams who are influenced by the fear of missing out on the top-flight’s riches.
Of course, surprises do still occur – in recent years Liverpool and Everton have lost at home to Barnsley and Oldham Athletic respectively – but gone are the days such as between 1966 and 1980 when 14 clubs won the FA Cup.
Weakened teams make it easier for the bigger clubs to succeed. Of the 20 FA Cup finals played since the inception of the Premier League, 17 have been won by what have generally been considered the ‘big four’ during the past two decades – Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool.
“I know over the years a lot of clubs have kind of belittled it a little by playing weakened sides,” says Sharp. “I think that’s a little crazy. “The FA Cup is a chance to win something. Let’s face it, not many teams are going to win the title in this day and age.
“Don’t get me wrong, some teams are battling against relegation in the Premier League but, for almost everybody else, they have got to go for it. It’s a trophy they can win.”
Indeed, the FA Cup represents realistically the only chance remaining for Everton or Liverpool to claim domestic silverware this season.
For all the naysayers, this weekend’s third round still retains its charm, the one time the minnows can rub shoulders with the big boys.
And with the television cameras on hand to witness whether League Two Cheltenham or non-League Mansfield can add to the litany of shocks, David Moyes and Brendan Rodgers will hope they don’t contribute to helping preserve the magic of the FA Cup just yet.