Is the FA Cup special anymore?

Anyone can see that the FA Cup has lost a certain amount of appeal over the last few years. With cup shocks suddenly less shocking, Christian Elwis discusses what can be done to inject new life into the most famous domestic competition in the world.

Jurgen Klopp is arguably the most popular manager – not just in the Premier League – but in world football. It seems even he isn’t exempt from English football fan frustrations, though.

Having been criticised for choosing a second-string Liverpool team to take on Plymouth in the FA Cup third round, he tried to repeat the unconvincing trick in the fourth round against Championship side Wolves, and it backfired. Cue the accusations of the German simply not caring about the oldest cup competition in the world.

It’s touched a nerve among the traditionalists of the game. People have noticed that the FA Cup isn’t quite what it used to be; cup shocks are now tainted by the fact the bigger sides are so willing to change their entire team to keep their best players healthy for the seemingly more important games.

It never used to be like this. People reminisce about the great games in cup history; Fourth division Colchester beating Don Revie’s Leeds United, Ronnie Radford’s 30-yard screamer against Newcastle, and non-league Sutton United beating Coventry City. Shrewsbury Town’s shock 2-1 win against Everton was only 15 years ago. All of the bigger sides in those games played full-strength teams, and are quite rightly the games that are etched into our minds when we think about the FA Cup.

Here’s the problem, though. These moments are actually in relatively short supply. They are the games that make up the same montages shown on TV every season.

Such is the fickleness of fans, Klopp’s decision making wouldn’t have been a problem had they dispatched their opposition (who made six changes themselves) with ease. Chelsea and Man Utd both made nine changes for their games against Brentford and Wigan, while Arsenal went one further and made 10 changes. They all won comfortably. They remain part of a damning statistic for the FA Cup, but no one is criticising Antonio Conte, Jose Mourinho or Arsene Wenger for making the same decision.

Put yourself in the shoes of those managers, though. Take away the financial element of their thought process, and focus on this. Why would you play a full-strength team against lower league opposition? People are so focused on protecting the ‘tradition’ and ‘values’ of the FA Cup that they fail to realise that there is simply no logical reason to going all out to win in the first few rounds of the competition.

The naysayers would do well to notice that only once in the past 20 years has the FA Cup final not featured at least one of the accepted big clubs, and out of the other 19 years, only once has those clubs failed to win it. We can complain about these club’s methods to victory, but the result is still largely the same as ever.

So isn’t the problem less about teams making wholesale changes in the early rounds, and more our obsession with the supposed ‘magic’ of the cup? Every year, the TV companies sell us this idea that at some point there will be this one fairytale result that will be replayed for years to come, but most years in history, this has failed to happen. In a competition that has been going as long it this one has, and where literally any club can enter, there will be odd surprise along the way. Big clubs are out of their comfort zones when they visit smaller clubs. You can’t imagine Wenger and his players are relishing the trip to Gander Green Lane in two weeks’ time.

There’s no way Klopp would have wanted to lose to Wolves, but he has a whole squad of players to keep happy, and saw the game as an opportunity for others to make their case for a more regular spot. You can’t begrudge him that.

The FA Cup is special because it gives any team a chance. Those teams that take part in the extra-preliminary rounds are able to turn up and be proud that they are competing in the same competition as the biggest clubs in the world, and non-league sides finances can be transformed by a good run and a big draw along the way.

But it’s not the annual producer of shocks and surprises that the traditionalists would have you believe. The FA Cup has such high standards and it’s impossible for the competition to live up to it in the modern day.

However, we are still being treated to romantic stories, and as Sutton and Lincoln City will testify, it is still an important competition. So, let’s just enjoy it for what it is now, rather than wishing it was as it has always been advertised. Because the FA Cup has never been a shock-fest, and never will be.

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