It is no secret that cup football in this country is a shade of what it used to be.
Over the last few decades, the FA Cup has gone from one of – if not the – biggest domestic competitions in world football to, what is seen by many managers as, an inconvenience. Monday night saw Wigan Athletic do their bit to remind us how special cup football can be, while Rochdale offered a flash of cup magic as they earnt a replay against Tottenham at Wembley.
Both games were throwbacks to the traditional ‘cupsets’ that typified the nation’s once-favourite tournament, especially given the strong team put out by Manchester City. Will Grigg’s goal ended the chances of a quadruple for a side including Sergio Aguero, David Silva, and Leroy Sané, while Rochdale’s draw was made more impressive by the fact that heavyweights such as Harry Kane and Dele Alli were brought on in the latter stages. This FA Cup weekend showed us what cup football should be; the next step is ensuring that cup games can regain their previous appeal on a more regular basis.
Here are three potential reforms which can be made to domestic cup competitions to reignite their spark.
Reform One: Scrap replays
While Rochdale showed that replays can be a great way for smaller teams to raise extra revenue, it’s evident that this rule takes some of the excitement out of Cup matches. The beauty of knockout cup football is that, by definition, it is winner takes all. A moment of brilliance or a mistake can be the difference between progression and elimination, no matter how deserved or otherwise it is. The viewing public have much more incentive to pay for a ticket if they know that they will see a winner and a loser on the night, rather than the anticlimax of the sides settling for a replay.
Particularly towards the end of matches, scrapping replays would lead to more exciting football, as teams would not have the happy medium of being able to settle for a draw and go try again the next time around. Scrapping replays would also make upsets far more likely as it is one thing for a smaller team to match a big club over one night, but far more difficult for them to do so again in the replay. One only needs to look to this season’s fourth round as evidence of this, as Newport County managed to hold Spurs at Rodney Parade, but ran out of steam and went down to a comfortable 2-0 defeat at Wembley.
Reform Two: Selection incentives
One of the main reasons for the decline of cup football is managers not playing their strongest teams, preferring to rest key players for the league matches they see as more important. Spurs made eleven changes from the side which drew with Juventus in the Champions League for their cup tie with Rochdale, while in the fourth round West Ham made six changes ahead of their visit to Wigan. While it is true that weaker sides put out by big teams increases the chances of an upset, it is a huge reason for fans being less motivated to watch cup games.
Nobody can force a manager to put out a certain team, but incentives can be introduced to encourage a stronger squad selection. A method which has been used in the Checkatrade Trophy in the lower leagues has been selection criteria, where teams who make more than six changes to their starting eleven from the last league match are fined. This could, it’s true, be seen as unfair to less financially stable clubs if it was brought in for the League and FA Cup in that it would likely have little impact on top clubs who have cash to burn. However, a better way of encouraging strong team selection is to award a Champions League place to the winner of each of the two main domestic cups. At present, only a place in Europa League qualification is at stake but I am sure that the offer of Champions League football would greatly interest managers of top clubs who are not having as successful a season as they hoped.
Reform three: Lower ranked teams choose the venue
This is a fairly outlandish suggestion, and I am confident that the FA would not even consider implementing it, but it would give more power to the lower league clubs and potentially increase the number of upsets. With this rule, the lower ranked team would choose which club’s ground the match would be played at, allowing them to choose whether they wanted the financial benefit of a trip to a large ground or to press for victory with home advantage. One of Tottenham’s main problems at the weekend was adapting to Rochdale’s pitch, while in the previous round against Newport County they struggled with the imposing nature of the home fans so close to them. It is no coincidence that they could not win on either occasion.
Last season’s competition saw then-non-league Lincoln travel to Arsenal, where nearly 60,000 people watched them and they earned a huge proportion of their season’s revenue from that day alone. The atmosphere at cup games has also been hurt in recent times, and allowing low ranked teams to choose the venue would also help with this. 8,000 Coventry supporters traveled to MK Dons in the fourth round, by far outnumbering the home supporters, while Notts County’s fourth round replay trip to Premier League Swansea was watched by fewer than 8,000 supporters. It is a tragedy that matches with the potential to be so entertaining can be played in front of nearly empty stadiums due to the apathy of Premier League supporters.