In the end they weren’t needed. The Premier League appeasing new FA rules of extra time and penalties in the first game of FA Cup Quarter Finals were not utilised this time around. And I for one am very happy about that.
Unfortunately, the FA are now set on a dangerous path of kowtowing to the Premier League’s every wish and Andy Ambler (the FA’s Head of Professional Game Relations – whatever that means!) has expressed a desire to introduce the ‘No Replays’ rule into all rounds of the competition, although he probably only means from the 3rd Round onward.
Only eleven of the 56 ties played in the 3rd, 4th and 5th Rounds of this season’s FA Cup required a replay (19.5%) of which just a half involved Premier League clubs. Not exactly an arduous extra commitment to those clubs in the top flight, especially as only two of them involved clubs competing in European competition. Even if the four Quarter Finals had been allowed to have a replay, it would have only affected two clubs who were still in Europe by the time the first game was played!
The real issue for me, though, is the FA’s complete disregard for the integrity of its own competition. Having one set of rules for some rounds and not for all rounds is bad enough, but when those rule changes go about changing the ethos of the competition one has to wonder if the custodians of the FA Cup have its best interests at heart. Making changes for the supposed betterment of the FA Cup is one thing, but making changes so that the Premier League (and European competitions) are not inconvenienced is tantamount to signing one’s own death warrant, albeit a long and protracted one.
After the debacle of the FA sanctioning the non-participation of their current holders in 2000/01 season, coincidentally and ominously a decision borne out of appeasing someone else, the FA has made some great changes to the FA Cup to keep it meaningful, interesting and exciting, not least with the opening up of entry to the competition to clubs further down the footballing pyramid.
Since the 2000/01 season we have seen increased participation of non-league clubs in the FA Cup from 487 clubs at the turn of the century to the 644 clubs that have been involved over the past four seasons (although it did peak at 671 in 2011/12, but ground grading rule changes have restricted entry since then). It is within the six qualifying rounds of the competition, needed to whittle down the 644 clubs to just 32 that make the 1st Round ‘Proper’, where we have seen the FA Cup being re-vitalised.
There is a terrific passion for the FA Cup amongst the clubs, the players, the owners, the managers, the trainers, the volunteers and the fans of Non-League clubs, all immensely proud to have been involved in the same competition as the stars of the Premier League, whether or not their club gets anywhere near facing one of them. Practically everybody involved in non-league football has a high passion for the game itself, and this usually extends to a love for a particular Premier League or EFL club. So to see the club they are involved with be part of the same competition as the well-known club they support is very special indeed.
And that connection, that pride in association, is the reason why it is critical that the FA ensure that the same rules of the competition are applied at all stages in exactly the same way. When Lincoln City were drawn to play at Portman Road in the 3rd Round this season, they knew that despite being disadvantaged by the luck of the draw, they had a chance to take the higher league side back to their home, a chance they took and benefited from. This opportunity to address the disadvantage of being drawn away from home at The Emirates in the Quarter Finals was taken away from them. Why was it ‘right’ to be able to do so in the 3rd Round but not in the sixth?
If the FA are to introduce rules that only kick in from the 3rd Round (video assisted referees is also being discussed) then it sends out a clear message to all those clubs who compete in the eight rounds before them that their contribution and worth to the FA Cup is not the same as those that join it from January.
I for one think that is a disgrace and I believe that the FA should think very carefully about how they treat the majority of clubs that participate in the famous FA Cup in their quest to appease the money-generating obsessed minority.