Over the last decade the debate has raged on about whether the “magic” of the FA Cup has been lost or if fans have fallen out of love with the competition.
It’s image has been damaged by instances such as Manchester United pulling out in 1999 in order to play in the Club World Cup in Brazil (in which they drew, lost and won against Necaxa of Mexico, Vasco de Gama of Brazil and South Melbourne of Australia respectively) and the Cup’s main sponsor becoming the American beer company Budweiser (making a joke of the competition by creating a Wembley FC FA Cup squad of ex internationals including Graeme Le Saux and David Seaman to be coached by Terry Venables, who didn’t make it past the first qualifying round, losing to Uxbridge 5-0 in the second leg).
However, at the weekend fans realized why the competition catches the imagination when it throws up the culturally addictive David vs. Goliath match. The four gems were Arlesey Town vs. Coventry City, Metropolitan Police vs. Crawley Town, Hendon vs. Aldershot Town and Yates Town vs. Cheltenham.
All four squads are all semi-professional and amateur teams who recruit locally, especially the Metropolitan Police who can only recruit from serving officers who have to balance playing and training with the stresses of policing the capital.
These players make huge sacrifices in managing their lives between maintaining jobs and looking after their families with competing in their regional leagues (which are the Evostick Division One South and West, Evostick Southern Premier Division and the Ryman League Premier Division) and then at this time of the year travelling potentially hundreds of miles to compete in the FA Cup with their away fans, showing more commitment than most Premier League and Football League clubs (last year in the FA Cup Coventry lost 6,000 fans compared to their attendances in the Championship which they were relegated from).
Obviously fans don’t have to fork out hard earned money to watch these knock out matches but you can see why they are deterred when managers send out second string teams or blood in youth players, thankfully paying the price when they undermine their non-league opposition in the case of Barnsley when they beat Liverpool and Chelsea on their way to the FA Cup semi-final in 2008.
It was once the silverware which was most coveted by managers in the 70’s and 80’s when the money hadn’t flooded into the game and competitions such as the Club World Cup were congesting fixtures. It was one of the huge regrets of Brian Clough, one of the greatest managers in Europe that he never managed to win an FA Cup with Nottingham or Derby.
The reason why the Cup is so important to these smaller clubs and why their attention and preparation is diverted away from their league obligations is because of the financial benefits involved.
Arlesey Town, Metropolitan Police, Hendon and Yates are not performing particularly well in their leagues (since summer of 2011 Yates Town have only won 12 games) but have all consistently progressed through the FA Cup in last few years with the incentive being that if you make it all the way to the first round you will have garnered £30,250 in prize money – lucrative investment when running a non-league club.
Compare that to the spoils of Coventry, Crawley Town, Aldershot and Cheltenham who will earn £18,000 from winning in the first round, a sum that even in the deep end of the Football League won’t stretch very far.
I’m not suggesting that even more money needs to be pumped into the English game but it would be a justified answer from Mark Robins or Richie Barker to the question of why the FA Cup has lost its importance when knocking out a team of plumbers, policemen and accountants gets in the way of the multi-million pound windfall for progression through the Football League.
image: © flawka