Moors face Barrow in the 2019/20 FA Cup

In The Athletic today, Carl Anka produced a fun, (presumably) tongue-in-cheek article titled, ‘The FA Cup: Rebooted’.

It was clearly meant to be a piece floating big ideas intended to promote interaction below the line in the comments. In fairness to Anka, he acknowledged the importance of the competition and its distinctive place in the English football ecosystem. He doesn’t entertain the idea of merging the competition with the League Cup, and he rightly recognises that the FA Cup works better and retains a great deal more respect than most of its global equivalents. However, what of the opening premise itself? Does the FA Cup need rebooting? If so, in the interests of whom?

This weekend, serial giant-killers Chorley and Marine host Derby County and Tottenham Hotspur at home respectively. The Marine v Tottenham tie represents the biggest league-position gulf in the history of the Third Round of the FA Cup. Despite all the difficulties the pandemic has created for non-league clubs, still our representatives from outside of the Football League have managed to set up two of the most exciting ties in recent memory.

How does this square with a competition that has lost its way? Are there any more or less minnows dodging their way downstream to the more prestigious stages of the competition? Not really. Everything seems to be ticking along nicely, and much as it always has. This season, Chorley and Marine; last season, Hartlepool and Fylde; 2018/19, Woking and Barnet. If anything, looking down the Third Round draw for this season, in terms of diversity of clubs participating at this stage, the FA Cup is in better health than ever.

It seems from Anka’s approach to his article, and from the responses it provoked in the comments, that many people recognise that the idea that ‘the FA Cup isn’t what it used to be’ is simply a combination of nostalgia bias and sneering disinterest from the self-appointed ‘big six’. It is telling that Anka writes in his parameters for the competition that the focus is on ‘eight rounds in the competition proper starting in November’. That’s fair enough, but nearly half the competition occurs before those ‘rounds proper’, starting in August. Most of the competition is over before Manchester City or Liverpool kick a ball in it. If we’re going to talk about ‘rebooting’ the competition, the qualifying rounds have to be part of the conversation too – and they’re the bits that most people pontificating over the health of the competition never see.

It’s the dream of every non-league club entering the competition to get that big Third Round tie against a Premier League side. Home, we get the media spotlight, the TV money, the fairytale looking glass, the one-off chance to host the starts of the big screen up-close and personal. Away, the incredible visitor experience, the David-and-Goliath combat, the guaranteed huge gate income. So, why then is it that our voices are never heard when it comes to discussions about the format and the effectiveness of the FA Cup? Because, as always, the exposure and the value is with the biggest Premier League teams – those with the most power and the biggest gobs, who just so happen to be the people who need those things least.

As far as most people’s interest in the FA Cup before the sharp end is concerned, those ties – along with lower-end Football League clubs in action against bigger sides – and the potential of unthinkable upsets (Sutton vs Coventry, Havant & Waterlooville vs Brentford, Vauxhall Motors vs QPR… Marine vs Tottenham?!) provide the ‘magic’ of the FA Cup of the famous cliché. I’m not someone who really holds the idea of ‘the magic of the FA Cup’ in high regard; I think viewers from outside smaller clubs see what they want to see in those ties. However, one thing is for sure, the little-vs-large, community-vs-professional ties, are the surest showcase of the beguiling and bizarre strength in depth and breadth that English domestic football has to offer. Even when tabloid newspapers exploit veteran players for cheap gags. So, if we’re going to tinker with the FA Cup, here are a couple of real suggestions:

  • Leave replays alone. They’re a financial lifeline for smaller clubs drawn against those higher up the pyramid or in the Football League. They also add a different strategic twist to ties in the event of a drawn game. In ordinary circumstances, we’d have brought Morecambe back to Damson Park this season, and – given the discrepancy between our home and away form – potentially have been working ourselves up for a tie with Chelsea this weekend.

  • Increase prize money for the qualifying rounds. Yes, it’s gone up, little by little, but there could always be more. The FA Cup is a great way for Premier League riches to be redistributed right down the pyramid, because God knows the only thing that trickles down naturally is the costs, not the profits. It’s semi-random, in that the draw hands different odds of progression to different sides, but by extension semi-meritocratic, as those who progress furthest reap the greatest rewards.

  • At the very least, preserve current non-league access to the ‘First Round proper’, if not increase it. There are debates in non-league circles about whether increasing access would dilute what makes the First Round draw ‘special’ to non-league sides, but equally, a tie against Scunthorpe United or Solihull Moors makes little difference in terms of income or opposition standard to, say, Buxton, and they’d still jump at taking on either.

As for the rest of the competition… well, other than the semis not being at neutral venues outside London, there’s nothing wrong with it, is there? So, stop your elitist frothing; the kind that always accompanies the eve of the Third Round. It’s not new, and it’s not as clever as you think.

- M00R5