Between now and next Monday the most over-used sporting cliché in England will be the phrase “the romance of the Cup”. Much loved by commentators, the phrase attached to the FA Cup will be employed to explain any act of giant killing in this weekend’s third-round: the date when the top clubs enter the competition.
Suspense comes in a number of forms. An underdog beating a team several divisions above them, a player scoring the winning goal (usually in the dying seconds) against a team which sold him after saying he was not good enough or a manager returning to the club which sacked him 12 months ago.
It means that the FA Cup is as much loved by headline writers and sports reporters as by the fans who can forget the fact their team has no chance of winning the competition for the 90 minutes of the third round. They can suspend their disbelief and temporarily persuade themselves that their side can triumph. It will be said that the FA Cup is the oldest and arguably the most prestigious knock-out competition in the world. The one that potentially, throws non-league teams up against the country’s finest professional sides in one-off gladiatorial battles that anybody could win. The fact that it is just about the only domestic cup competition in Europe that has ever had any credibility will not deter people from saying it is the best in the world. But for once the hype might turn out to be close to the truth.
This season’s Cup is the most significant in its 128-year history. Last year’s was badly damaged when the FA allowed Manchester United to withdraw to play in the World Club Championship in Rio. It was said at the time that by turning up in Rio, United was helping England’s bid for the World Cup in 2006. The bid was a shambles – England only won two votes when the final count was taken in June – but the damage done to the FA Cup was massive.
Once the Cup became a political football it was impossible for the FA to continue to describe it as the most special knock-out competition in the world. If it is so special, the argument went, why had the FA allowed the holders to drop out? The impact was doubled by rescheduling the third round away from its traditional home on the first weekend of January to before Christmas where viewers and supporters were lost to shopping.
The Cup’s sponsor, French insurance group Axa, which is now in the third year of its four-year &£25m deal felt cheated by United’s withdrawal. Although its profile increased as a result of the United row, people actually started feeling sorry for it – Axa is already believed to have decided not to renew its contract although the suggestion is denied by the company. This could mean the FA will be on the lookout for a new sponsor in the near future, another reason why this season’s tournament has to be a success.
Last season also saw a fall in live television audiences. ITV’s average audience for its FA Cup matches dropped 24.5 per cent to 4.9 million people while Sky Sports also lost a substantial number of viewers – and the competition ended with one of the worst finals in living memory between Chelsea and Aston Villa. On Sunday, United return in the third-round. The Premier League leaders play Fulham, which is top of the first division.
But in truth the FA Cup has been on the slide for several years. It is still adored by fans and there will be huge attendances this weekend for all the games, but it has slipped down the priorities of the major clubs now fixated with everything European. Clubs like to win it, but the prize money – believed to be less than &£1m – is not enough to buy one-third of a promising 18-year-old centre-forward or pay the wages of an average midfielder. So the FA Championship also plays second fiddle to success in the Premiership.
The underdog myth has also worn thin. A quick look at recent competitions will show that Man United, Arsenal and Chelsea have dominated the Cup over the past ten seasons, winning seven of the last eight finals. And giant-killers have become fewer and fewer.
The FA is making changes. The Cup is, after all, its crown jewels. The third-round has been returned to the first weekend in January; the FA’s chief executive Adam Crozier has said that no team will be allowed to withdraw ever again and it introduced clauses into its new TV contract with Sky and the BBC, which comes into effect in August, ensuring that live games will only be played on a Sunday.
The FA is also trying to persuade Uefa, which may grant England a fourth place in the Champions League competition, to give that place to the winner of the FA Cup and with it entry to the European gravy train. While this would increase the Cup’s importance, it is a move that would be fought by a Premier League determined that the side finishing fourth in the Premiership should win the place.
Last season the FA Cup had more to do with brutal reality than romance. If it is to regain its shine, and the FA sincerely hopes it will, to reinforce its commercial importance, then this season it is going to have to rediscover its romantic roots.
Tom O’Sullivan is sports page editor of the Financial Times