The status of the world’s oldest cup competition came into focus again when Manuel Pellegrini named five debutants in his starting XI at Chelsea on Sunday, in a move that angered both Manchester City fans and lovers of the FA Cup, who claimed that the gesture was disrespectful to the competition. Tom Simmonds has a solution which he thinks would help restore a little more of football’s soul and help the cup.
There were two main strands to Pellegrini’s argument for picking a weakened side which was hammered 5-1; that his squad was ravaged by injuries and that their Champions League excursion to Kyiv to face Dynamo on Wednesday had to take precedence. The second of these warrants further examination.
Pellegrini, who, incidentally, looks a good decade younger since City announced they would be dispensing with his services in the summer to welcome in Pep Guardiola, bristled throughout his post-match interview, unapologetically dressing up the trip to Ukraine as an ambassadorial duty under cover of a football match.
His implication was clear – he was willing to sacrifice the FA Cup game because winning the Champions League (and the Premier League) would be the perfect rejoinder to the board who are jettisoning him.
So, what to do about these conundrums which leave the FA Cup looking neglected? The ‘just get on with it’ argument regarding fixture pile-ups, seductive in its simplicity, is not particularly workable in an age where everything a player does is logged and analysed to death. This school of thought forgets that this is done for a reason. Well-being of players cannot be risked, despite the protestations of some of the more old-school pundits who proselytise that sports science is made up, and that a player’s wage packet also contains an invisible force-field a la Batfink’s ‘wings like a shield of steel’ that wards off heavy tackles.
We also cannot seriously consider ditching replays, at least at the earlier stages of the competition. In a game where wealth is already distributed uncomfortably unequally, removing another lifeline for smaller clubs in the form of possibly earning a lucrative replay at a big ground, and, with the same stroke, amputating a large part of the FA Cup’s “magic” that the media use to sell the competition, would be a suicidal move.
This writer’s preferred way to cut down the number of games that elite players have to play, but which will never happen now, lies outside of England. Doing away with the current format of the European club competitions and restoring them to how they were in the 70s, 80s and early 90s sounds revolutionary, but it really shouldn’t.
While unthinkable in the money men’s eyes, scrapping the Champions League group stages, and opening it only to those clubs who are actually the reigning champions of their country would cut down bloated schedules instantly. Bringing back the Cup Winners’ Cup and ‘rebranding’ the Europa League to its original name, the UEFA Cup, while reserving it for the ‘best of the rest’ in the European leagues would also give the game back two knockout competitions with lustre, which would represent a proportionate reward to a club’s performance in the previous season. It would also ensure that no European dead rubbers (which can be just as irksome to coaches as plain old cup games) took place.
The example of the mutation of these European competitions into what we have now shows the danger of trying to tinker with the FA Cup. Every proposed solution I have seen to negate actions like Pellegrini’s involves breaking the FA Cup when no fixing is needed. Chelsea boss Guus Hiddink said after his side prevailed 5-1 over “It is the temple of football – we must be careful not to devalue this”. Given the seemingly irreversible vandalism that has been wrought on football’s architecture in the last three decades, it seems a forlorn hope that the FA Cup can escape being further ‘reformed’ in response to its degradation.
Do you agree that the European club competitions are to blame for fixture congestion faced by the bigger clubs and that these should be reformed first to try to address this?
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