A wonderful last minute goal. A jubilant non-league team. A devastated well-known manager. After what happened at Lincoln on Tuesday night, you could be forgiven for thinking that all is well with the FA Cup, that rumours of its demise have been greatly exaggerated and that its magic is timeless. Bobbins. This was nothing more than a fleeting moment of lucidity in a patient ravaged by age and neglect. Down in South London, a far more accurate picture emerged. Little over 7,000 people considered Crystal Palace’s replay with Bolton Wanderers to be worthy of their £20. And who could blame them?
If the FA Cup was a politician, it would be one of those cold war Eastern European politicians who wouldn’t be seen for months until footage emerged of them sitting dead-eyed in a stiff chair, cocktails of stimulants fizzing through arteries that clocked off months ago and don’t understand why the vital organs didn’t swiftly follow. “Is he dead? No, no. He’s not dead. His arm just twitched. He’s absolutely fine.” That’s what Lincoln was. It was a twitch.
It’s fun to blame Manchester United for this, pinpointing their 1999 sabbatical as the moment it all went wrong, but it’s not accurate. It was going wrong long before that. The rise of the Champions League and the Premier League seriously wounded the FA Cup, the football authorities bungled the treatment and the rest of us were too slow to notice the fatal infection spreading.
We’re all to blame. We keep lapping up the bullshit. Every year, we sit happily while people burble at us about ‘tradition’ and placate us with Ronnie Radford footage. Never mind the quality, feel the tradition. Suckle the tradition. Mmmm…it’s full of traditional goodness. Double bobbins. What’s traditional about a 5.30pm TV-friendly kick-off for the final? What’s traditional about showpiece-spoiling semi-finals at Wembley? What’s traditional about stretching the fixtures across four days of TV coverage? What’s traditional about 3pm on a FA Cup third round Saturday when every fixture that’s even mildly interesting has been surgically removed and grafted awkwardly into the schedule of a subscription channel like a human ear on the back of a lab rat? And will someone please tell me what’s traditional about an 11.30am Sunday morning kick-off? In a post-truth era of epochal change, FA Cup bullshit is the least important of all the bullshits, but that’s no reason to still fall for it.
The only people who seem impervious to the bullshit are the clubs themselves. They’re not stupid. The ones at the top of the Premier League know that FA Cup runs will congest their diaries while they’re pushing for the Champions League, either that year’s edition or the one that will follow. Middling clubs know that winning the FA Cup secures approximately £3.3m in prize money, but that the difference in Premier League prize money for every place in the table is £2m. Therefore, tossing off the FA Cup and finishing 12th instead of 14th is just good business. Struggling clubs wouldn’t consider an FA Cup run for a moment, given that relegation means financial apocalypse, and the rising stars of the Championship are too busy trying to get promoted to be concerned with an unlikely cup adventure.
There is a way to solve all of this and it’s very simple. Offer up a Champions League place to the winners of the FA Cup. Reward success instead of fetishising fourth place.
There are two well-rehearsed counter-arguments to this proposal. Firstly, that the big teams almost always win the FA Cup anyway, so it wouldn’t change anything. This is silly. The big teams almost always win the FA Cup because if everyone’s weakening their teams, their fringe players are light years ahead of, say, Bournemouth’s fringe players. But if everyone’s going hell for leather and the competition remains an unseeded, randomly drawn one match knock-out…well, I’d certainly tune in to see what happens.
The other riposte is that if we give the great unwashed the chance of a European adventure, they’ll invariably mess it up and cost us our coefficient. Maintaining the coefficient, they assert, is a sacred responsibility entrusted only to the elite. Triple bobbins. We’ve let the same old teams maintain that coefficient for years and you wouldn’t trust most of them not to wee in their own bathwater. Heavens, Liverpool’s idea of protecting that coefficient was to send a reserve side to Real Madrid.
This year, Leicester caused the elite some concerns by having a swing at the continent. They dominated their group and bounded into the knock-out stages. And to hell with the coefficient anyway. As a child, did you not picture yourself trudging up the steps to the royal box, tired, muddy and happy? Who grew up imagining themselves making a tangible impact on a seeding device?
If everyone is piling into the FA Cup, either as an insurance policy against failing to finish in the top three or to change their stars, then the standard is going to be high. And if someone like Bournemouth or Derby County or Sheffield United or Chesterfield somehow overcame those odds to win at Wembley, are you seriously suggesting that we should not welcome nor reward their success for fear of keeping one pampered snout out of the money trough for one season? Quadruple bobbins. All the bobbins. An infinity of bobbins. May you drown in bobbins.
The FA Cup used to be great. If you’re under the age of 35, you may not understand quite how great. It used to be considered the equal of the league. It was the nation’s competition, the great big chaotic battle royale and everyone cared about it. Congratulations to Lincoln. They were outstanding. Let their big night prove the catalyst for a wider recovery and a return to the league. But don’t let their heroism fool you into thinking that everything is all right. The FA Cup is dying.