In past decades the domestic cup competitions were the pinnacle of English football; as, if not more, important than the Premier League itself. However, as the 21st century had progressed, the top teams have been putting less and less emphasis on the age-old knockout competitions as they concentrate all their efforts in achieving success in their domestic leagues. The FA Cup in particular has seen a steady decline in the interest shown by the top clubs and, far from being the most sought after trophy in English football, it is now the case that managers can win the competition and still be in danger of losing their jobs.
To see the degradation of the importance of the cup competitions, all one needs to do is look at the recent examples of Manchester United and Arsenal. Two seasons ago, Louis Van Gaal was given the sack by United just minutes after his side overcame Crystal Palace in the final at Wembley, while the inexhaustible fountain of football knowledge that is Troopz from ArsenalFanTV said something along the lines of “it’s the FA Cup, fam, so what?” when Arsenal won the trophy last season. Three victories in the past four years in the FA Cup have not been enough to silence Arséne Wenger’s critics, and the obvious lack of appreciation from supporters clearly does nothing to encourage managers to take the competition seriously. To my knowledge, nothing has changed in the format of the competition between the ‘good old days’ of the FA Cup and now, but for some reason the majority of fans – particularly those of the larger clubs – have now become indifferent.
A by-product of this (or possibly the cause) is the weakened teams we so regularly see put out in the early rounds of the cup competitions. I have to admit, an EFL Cup third round tie against Swansea would not do much to get the juices flowing for the average Manchester City fan at the best of times, but even less so when they find that unblooded youngsters such as Aleix García and Angeliño were starting the game in place of hard-hitters of the quality of Kevin de Bruyne. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the cup competitions lose their magic when matches are used as an opportunity to give game time to fringe players rather than do the utmost to entertain supporters in a knockout match. If you asked supporters of an average Football League or Premier League side whether they would prefer a solid showing in their league or a trip to Wembley and a trophy in one of the cup competitions, I’d wager that most would opt for the latter. Anyway, who says the two are mutually exclusive? One only has to look at Chelsea’s season as they took the Premier League by storm and were 90 minutes away from being crowned FA Cup champions to see that it is possible to achieve success on multiple fronts without protecting their players to a ridiculous extent. Surely most sides are missing a trick here.
Although it is not, at first, clear in what ways the English domestic cups have changed to cause their clear reduction in popularity, under closer inspection there are several seemingly minor factors which may have contributed to the change in mindset of managers and supporters. One such factor is the ever increasing levels of sponsorship which now surround cup competitions. It is true that almost all major footballing competitions around the world now have some kind of sponsorship to their name, but I have to say that having such a clear intention to advertise attached with a competition does not help to excite supporters. Would the EFL Trophy have been considered quite so redundant had it not been renamed the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy? It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. The ever changing nature of these sponsorship deals can also retract from the spectacle of knockout football for the simple reason that it is hard to keep up. I have to admit that I had to think for a minute this morning when the Carabao Cup draw was made as to exactly what competition we were talking about, before I realised it was the most recent sponsor of the Carling/Capital One/EFL Cup. Even the FA Cup has sold itself out to Emirates when it used to be one of the only unsponsored knockout competitions in the UK. Although this might not seem like a major alteration to the cup system, it certainly does something to take the gloss off the knockout tournaments.
However, one thing that definitely changes the way a competition is viewed and treated is adding in a number of Premier League and Championship under 23 sides to play against the League One and League Two teams. The newly named Checkatrade Trophy has done just that after a trial season took place last season with Coventry City coming out as winners. Most people would agree that the EFL Trophy was never all that, but the inclusion of the category one academies has made what was once seen as a viable chance for the less well established clubs to get to Wembley into nothing more than a laughing stock. The attendances in the trial season were appalling and many clubs broke records for the lowest ever attendances at their grounds. Bristol Rovers found themselves making an operating loss on a home match due to the lack of enthusiasm shown to the competition in its revised format. The clubs themselves did their best to show their disdain for the tournament as well (while doing their best to avoid the £5,000 fines for playing a weakened team) with Exeter City and Wycombe Wanderers both naming their manager in the squad for their matches in the tournament. Gareth Ainsworth, in fact, came off the bench for the Chairboys against Northampton Town to register an assist. These antics clearly show the level of contempt the trophy is held in and, although it is an extreme example, it does nothing to raise the reputation of domestic cup football in England.
The term ‘magic of the cup’ is something which is invariably uttered by the pundits when they are employed to cover matches in the competition but, in truth, the magic which once surrounded cup ties has long since dissipated. Gone are the days when the FA Cup final was the biggest date in the footballing calendar and whole families who usually took little interest in football would crowd around the TV for the day, while every young child would see themselves wheeling away in celebration having scored the winning goal at Wembley for whatever team they supported. However, fortunately, the damage to the English domestic cups is not irreversible. The first step is obviously to revert the format of the Checkatrade Trophy to its original format as it is, quite frankly, disrespectful to the League One and League Two teams to pitch them against such weak opposition. Having said that, there are elements that the other domestic knockout competitions can take from the disastrous Checkatrade Trophy which could restore them to their former glory. One of the parts of the competition that is least popular with fans is the fines for playing severely weakened teams, but that would certainly be one way of preventing teams from putting out their reserves in cup games. I would not introduce crippling fines when teams rest up, but I like the idea of providing an incentive to put out a strong starting eleven.
This could be done by making a rule so that if a team makes more than, say, four changes from their last league game, half of the players brought in would need to have been trained in the club’s youth academy for a certain number of years. Although there is little to be done about teams making changes for their cup games, regulations can be put in place to ensure that young British talent is given the chance to flourish rather than simply journeyman fringe players. However, there is nothing to say that teams would keep to these regulations, much like the team selection criteria in the Checkatrade Trophy was largely ignored, so the best way I can think of to raise the stakes in cup competitions is to increase the rewards for success. This can be done both in the competitions as a whole and in individual matches. Increasing the prize money for winning each round would be enough to persuade most of the lower league teams to treat cups with the utmost respect, while the bigger clubs could be convinced by the offer of a Champions League place. At present the winners of the League Cup and FA Cup receive a place in the qualifying rounds for the Europa League, something which means nothing to the top six teams in the country, but the chance to play in the Champions League would force managers to do their absolute best to win cup competitions. I am certain that giving a Champions League spot to the winners of the main cups rather than third and fourth place in the Premier League would be a success as similar steps have been taken in the Europa League, which has led to both Manchester United and Liverpool putting all their efforts into the competition in the last couple of seasons.
The exploits of Sutton United and Lincoln City have shown that there is still the potential for English cups to be among the best in the world if the right amendments are made to the system. I feel that the recent failure of the national team has made it even more important that the domestic cups are restored to their former glory as the club system is England is, in my view, rivalled by none in the world. If the Football Association revises the competitions to make clubs take them seriously then the interest of supporters will be rekindled and the English domestic cups can once more be the envy of the world football.
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