The FA Cup has regained some of its old sparkle just as the Scottish equivalent seems to be regressing, writes KEN HOUSTON, Sports Editor, Man About Town and Transport Correspondent Extraordinaire…
The FA Cup has been a football institution followed by fans across the British Isles rather than just England, which is hardly surprising given the level of input over the years by players and managers from Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
In fact, Scots generally not only follow the big English clubs with a certain fondness but will invariably support the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool against European opposition, which is in complete contrast to the hostility normally shown to the England national side. Sigmund Freud, were he alive, would have a field day psycho-analysing this apparent contradiction.
Even before last weekend’s quarter-final, this FA Cup was already a cracker, admittedly hyped up (some might say over-hyped) by the BBC, who have given it full Match of the Day treatment, now that the competition – after a period of exile with ITV – has returned to its spiritual broadcasting home.
But more than that, the main clubs have been putting out full strength or nearly full strength teams and seem genuinely to want to win the competition – which made Bradford City’s 4-2 win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and Cambridge United holding Manchester United to a draw at home (and losing the replay by only one goal at Old Trafford) all the more remarkable.
However no one yet knows if this is a one-off and that next season the competition will revert to being a sideshow by those clubs whose priority is either winning the Premiership and one of the other Champions League places, retaining their Premiership status or gaining promotion to the Premiership.
Indeed, the pulling power of the Premiership (following the new sponsorship deal now worth at least £105 million a year to a club) means that the Championship Play-off Final at Wembley (between two runners-up it should be remembered) has more or less supplanted the FA Cup final as the climax to the season. By contrast this year’s FA Cup will be worth, to a winner, a comparably miniscule £1.8m.
Other factors that have led to the diminution of the cup include the prevalence of foreign players and managers for whom the ‘tradition’ of the competition means very little; and the decision to play the semi-finals at Wembley, which by default dilutes the value of the final as an ‘occasion’.
Personally, I see only one way of revitalising the FA Cup on a more permanent basis and that is to persuade UEFA to permit each national association to allocate one of its Champions League places to their respective cup-winners. Some have argued that this would put an end to cup giant-killing because had a Champions League place been at stake, Chelsea would never have let in four goals against Bradford at home and Manchester United would have finished off little Cambridge in one go.
But I suspect there will still be the scope for a David to slay a Goliath. In fact the lure of the Champions League place may make a big club more nervy in a tie against a team of minnows with plenty of guts and absolutely nothing to lose.
The high-water mark of the FA Cup could be said to have been 1970 when just under 29 million viewers (literally more than half the UK population at the time) tuned in to watch the final between Chelsea and Leeds United. The intervening years have seen it brought down by globalisation and only globalisation (in the form of a Champions League place for the winners) will restore its former glory.
NOVEMBER DAMP SQUIB
Meanwhile, up here in the fitba kailyard, our own cup competition has taken a bit of a knock from the policy of playing the fourth round – the stage when the Premiership clubs enter the competition – a month or more before the traditional January starting date.
The traditional practice of waiting until January before the big boys were pitted against the surviving minnows reinvigorated the season at the halfway stage and gave new hope to some of the clubs whose league prospects had already faltered.
Instead, this season’s fourth round ties began on 29 November – four weeks less one day before Christmas – and the fan reaction was there for all to see. The average attendance at the 16 ties was just 4,327 and four attracted crowds of under 1,000.
A significant consequence was the early exit of Aberdeen, which with the troubles at Ibrox is arguably Scotland’s second largest club. And if not Aberdeen it would have been their opponents, Dundee, which is one of the country’s better supported clubs when the team starts to put together a string of good results.
Incidentally the attendance at this game was just under 6,000 when a cup-tie against these two long-established rivals would normally have attracted a gate twice that size.
Away from the terraces, one chairman has also made the very valid point that by being knocked out of the cup before the end of November, sales of a club’s replica strips as Christmas presents are likely to suffer.
Were football a ‘real business’ shareholders would have been calling an EGM to bring the board to account for making a decision with such negative financial consequences.
It is claimed that bringing forward the fourth round has been made necessary by fixture congestion. Fair enough, but what is the point of addressing the issue by taking the shine off the competition for what is the oldest national football cup trophy in the world?*
And in any case it could be claimed a much better way to avoid fixture congestion would be reconstruction of the league to two divisions of 20 and 22 clubs respectively and playing each other only once, home and away.
Despite the glamour (albeit still a bit faded) of the FA Cup, the equivalent competition should be even more important to Scotland than England because, unlike our one-horse Premiership, the cup offers the distinct possibility of being won by a team that doesn’t play in green and white hoops – e.g. St Johnstone last year, Hearts the year before.
Let’s hope sense prevails next season by reverting to January for the ground-breaking fourth round and so returning the crowds and some needed atmosphere to the competition.
LIFE IS SPARTAN AT THE BOTTOM
It says something for the fragility of Scottish football that an episode of cup giant-killing can actually mean a club from the league knocking out a non-league opponent.
This was the prospect when Berwick Rangers from League 2 were drawn away in the fifth round to Spartans, the North Edinburgh club from the Lowland League. With their previous cup record, home advantage and a famously partisan support, Spartans were actually expected to win this one.
In fact Berwick took an early lead but Spartans managed to equalise in the dying minutes of the game and with their tails up, a Spartans win in the replay at Shielfield would have surprised no one, not least the 11 busloads of Spartan fans who travelled to Berwick. As it turned out the ‘wee Rangers’ won, albeit by just a single goal.
In England ambitious clubs like Spartans would have been given their crack at league football several years ago given that there is automatic promotion and relegation involving the two bottom clubs in League 2 and two from the Conference (the first-placed club and the winner of the play-offs between the four runners-up).
A similar ‘pyramid’ system will operate in Scotland for the first time this year but it’s best not to get too excited: there will be a play-off between the Highland and Lowland league champions but the winners will achieve Scottish League status only if they manage to win a further play-off with the bottom team in League 2.
Nicola’s “smart, successful Scotland”, it would appear, has still to apply to the structure of our national game.
*The FA Cup is the older competition but the current trophy is not original