LONDON ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 16: A detailed view of the FA Cup sponsored by Eon at the Leyton Orient FA Cup Media Day at Matchroom Stadium on February 16 2011 in London England. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
Clearly it’s all FA Cup all the time at Royal Blue Mersey at the moment. And with Everton only two wins away how could it not be. A trip to Wembley and the chance at some hardware has revived a season that just three months ago was as dull as gets. So, today, I am happy to say that reports of the FA Cup’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Not that anybody here needs to be told that the FA Cup is still important, but take the jump anyway as I debunk the myth that in today’s game the FA Cup doesn’t matter.
Michael Cox, soccer writer extraordinaire addressed FA Cup issues earlier this month. His main point, and it’s a good one, is that there are really only two things that matter anymore in the Premier League, finishing in the top four, and not finishing in the bottom three. He’s right. The money associated with first the Premiere League and then the Champions League is just so large that it forces teams to prioritize it. That money also further polarizes teams. As Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool continued to qualify for the biggest competition in the world they were able to continue cycling money into their teams, and for the better part of a decade that led to a stranglehold on the EPL that was more or less unprecedented.
Conventional wisdom is that all this money has made the history of the FA Cup unimportant to players and teams. The top teams don’t take the matches seriously, and rest players rather than running out the A team. This year, for example, Tottenham is the only team in a Champions League position still in the competition. There is a movement afoot to try and persuade UEFA to allow the FA to award it’s fourth Champions League spot to the FA Cup winner, in the hopes that that would force top teams to take the cup more seriously.
Except that, that is absolutely the wrong idea for a whole host of reasons. First of all let’s look at the idea from a practical perspective. If the winner of the FA Cup won an Champions League spot, instead of the team that comes in fourth place it would have very little impact. Since 2000 there has only been one team that won the FA cup who wouldn’t have qualified for the Champions League anyway, Portsmouthin 2007-2008. And that statistic leads me to my second problem. While lots of people complain that the top teams don’t take the Cup seriously, somehow they almost always still end up winning. So, where is the evidence that top teams don’t take it seriously enough?
As it stands right now, and as all Everton fans can tell you this week, the FA Cup is the last bastion of hope for the non-elite teams of the EPL. At the beginning of this season there were at most four teams that could conceivably have talked themselves into believing they were contenders to win the league, the Manchesters, Chelsea, and maaaaaaybe Arsenal. At one point this year a fifth, Tottenham, was also at least on the fringes of the race for the top. But, in the quarter finals, in addition to winners Everton, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham, Stoke, Bolton, Sunderland, and Championship Division team Leicester City could all say they were only three wins away from hardware.
So why the talk about changing the plans? Why the talk of undertaking a plan that would work against the majority of the teams and encourage more of the top few in the finals? Well, while nine of the last ten winners have also been top four finishers, only two of the runners up were in that position. It’s a recipe that doesn’t make for many scintillating championship matches. Even the Portsmouth win in 2007-2008 featured the heavy favorite winning the match, since their opponent, Cardiff City, was a lower division team. In other words, it’s been over a decade since the last time the final of the FA Cup was at all surprising. That’s the problem with the underdog narrative. They almost never (and in the FA Cup never in the last ten years) win.
On the other hand, if the FA Cup was set up to directly encourage the teams currently atop the Premier League to give priority to the knockout tournament as well then there would probably be more “marquee” matchups. More matches like Chelsea against Man U in 2006-2007, or Arsenal against Man U in 2004-2006 are clearly good for the EPL. Those games make neutrals tune, and sell advertising dollars, and in general makes a better spectacle for anybody who doesn’t happen to be a fan of one of the two teams involved.
Look, I have no problem with the FA wanting the biggest possible match-up they can get. And honestly if they did give the winner a Champions League berth I bet on average the quality of the finals would be better. But, can we stop talking about how nobody cares about the FA Cup. There are maybe four teams that don’t care about the FA Cup. People who say that the FA Cup doesn’t matter are really saying that nothing but the biggest teams matter. And there are a whole bunch of Everton fans here who will tell you otherwise.
So, onward to Wembley and Liverpool, and a rivalry game that actually matters.