How to fix the FA Cup / Does it even need to be fixed?

Every year around this time there’s a rush of suggestions and ideas of ways to improve the FA Cup. The three ideas are mentioned below in the tweets are ideas that I’ve seen more than once and I can understand where the thoughts originate from. They come with the best intentions.

Of the three ideas this is probably the one I’d be least concerned about. However, the joy of the FA Cup competition is that there are replays. We wouldn’t want to turn this famous competition into a League Cup clone. I think ensuring the better side goes through by replaying the tie is more valuable than trying to force a penalty shoot-out between the two clubs after extra time.

Seeding clubs based on league position sounds like a lovely idea. However, in practice it could lead to some odd results in previous weekends before cup draws. If (say) Grimsby Town know that a loss against Barnet would mean a tie against Arsenal at home rather than Southampton there may be a temptation to throw the game in order to achieve the bigger tie.

It would also lead to the middling seeds having to play each other. Ties between two relegation strugglers in the Championship are unlikely to be good fare. It would also devalue the competition for teams like Chelsea and Manchester United, who would begin January every calendar year with an easy tie against a non-league club. It’s unlikely that a non-league team would ever be able to beat a Chelsea or Manchester United reserve side, let alone a full strength eleven. It’s far more likely that a giant-killing will occur when a non-league side play against Premier League or Championship sides who are struggling in the league. (See Blyth’s excellent performance against Birmingham City for proof of that)

Enacting the idea in the above tweet would also mean that the FA Cup Third Round draw would be scrapped. It’s pretty clear that the media love peddling the idea of the FA Cup Third Round day as “one of the most eagerly anticipated in the football calendar” but there are few better football related events that aren’t actually football that beat an FA Cup draw. (Obviously the English FA should revert back to velvet bags and wooden balls and away from the current plastic Lottery extravaganza its created. But that goes without saying).

Many supporters of lower league clubs would prefer a day out at Old Trafford rather than welcoming Manchester United to their own patch. In addition, it’s worth remembering that gate receipts for FA Cup ties are split equally between the home and away side. This proposal would lead to the overall attendance in Round Three falling – and therefore the amount of money generated during the round would drop significantly.

The biggest issue with the FA Cup, not mentioned in the tweets above, is not related to its structure. It’s related to the problem that in the top two flights of English football the majority of fans who attend league games are season ticket holders. This is a marked change from recent decades where most fans would turn up on the day of a match and buy a ticket. It’s very easy for fans to look at the side they’ve been drawn against in the cup and decide to do something else that day if the draw isn’t particularly alluring.  After all, if a fan has purchased a season ticket then they have already committed themselves to 19 or 23 league games and surely therefore their devotion and commitment is surely beyond question. The extra expense of a FA Cup ticket and another day spent away from the family may be too much to bear for some.

Therefore clubs need to think a little differently to their cup ties. If lower Premier League clubs or Championship sides play teams from League One/Two then attendances can be woefully low even with significantly reduced ticket prices. Perhaps FA Cup ties against opposition in the same or a lower division could be made part of the price of a standard season ticket. However even this simple ploy is doomed to failure as this would certainly lead to problems as how would clubs go about splitting gate receipts for such ties.

Perhaps the solution is to draw all the rounds up to the final – as is done in the latter stages of the Champions League. If Ipswich Town drew (say) Chesterfield at home in the Third Round of the FA Cup, but knew that in Round 4 they would face the winner of Manchester United or Norwich City, then fans would attend the third round fixture knowing they would be first in the queue for fourth round tickets. This does go against the grain of FA Cup tradition but may offer a palatable solution for falling attendances in these sorts of games.

Whilst I feel that the FA Cup is a sacred institution that should not be meddled with, I am not a footballing dinosaur and feel that the League Cup is fair game for those who enjoy ripping up blueprints and suggesting something entirely new. The following are a couple of ideas I’ve felt that would help the competition over the years:

  1. League Cup draw for Round One should be scrapped and instead ties should be chosen based on creating “local derbies”. Exeter City should alternate between playing Plymouth Argyle and Torquay United every year. Blackpool would play Fleetwood. Bristol City would play Bristol Rovers (if the latter can bounce back in time for next season’s competition).
  2. The second round should be seeded to ensure that no two teams from the same division should play one another. All Premier League ties and ties between two teams in League One should be impossible. The second criteria should be to match-up teams with sides they have not played against before (or for a very long time). Football fans love the opportunity to visit a new ground. Aston Villa vs Everton in the League Cup is a pointless fixture when both of those clubs could play against League One/Two sides they’ve not played against in many years.

In summary, the FA Cup isn’t too bad as it is. But the League Cup? That’s where the fiddling should begin!