Anyone who thinks the FA gives two hoots about a club playing an FA Cup Semi-Final at home negatively affecting the integrity of the competition needs to think again.
The supposed custodians of the world’s oldest cup competition have been denigrating this famous competition for years now with decisions made based upon maximising revenue and/or benefitting other parties, all at the expense of the FA Cup.
In 1999, the FA sanctioned the Cup holders, Manchester United, not to have to defend their title. Was this decision based on benefitting the FA Cup? Of course it wasn’t; it was all done in the futile attempt at winning the rights to host the World Cup. What made it worse was that it was perfectly possible for Manchester United to play in the inaugural World Club Championship as well as in the FA Cup simply by delaying when they needed to play their Third Round tie, but the FA decided upon a ‘lucky loser’ option instead.
One of the reasons why the FA Cup is still regarded as a competition worth winning by many in the game is that if you lose a match you are out. There are no second chances. The only exceptions to that rule have been 1) whenever the FA declares a result as being void, 2) the exceptional circumstances of the first competition after World War II where games were all two legged affairs, and 3) when Darlington were drawn out as the lucky loser after losing 3-1 at Gillingham in the Second Round in 1999-2000 season. Even then the FA could have reverted to previous ways of managing odd numbers in a Round by just giving one club a bye in the Third Round instead of allowing a defeated team a second chance!
Many commentators on our beautiful game cite that decision in 1999 by the FA to agree to Manchester United not defending their title as the day the FA Cup was fatally wounded; the day it lost its status as the prestigious competition it once was, and the beginning of a long, slow path to death.
To be fair to the FA, though, whilst the FA Cup was being belittled at the business end of the competition, they made a decision to begin opening it up to more lower-level clubs, and since the Year 2000 there has been a steady increase in the number of non-league clubs participating in it (capped based on ground grading rules). The high regard for the FA Cup is alive and well amongst the hundreds of these non-league clubs. It’s a pity that those in charge of top tier clubs do not feel the same. Maybe they just need to experience football at this lower level.
In 2007, the FA sanctioned the use of Wembley for Semi-Finals on a permanent basis. There had been sporadic use of the old Wembley for Semi-Finals prior to its demolition, and even one season use of the Millennium Stadium in that stadium’s last tenure of hosting the Final, but the current norm didn’t come about until a season after the first Final was held at the new Wembley. Football fans up and down the country bemoaned the fact that getting to Wembley was being devalued, but the FA had a big bill to pay and Wembley had to be used as much as possible. So now the media and clubs trumpet reaching Wembley as a major achievement even though it’s just at the Semi-Finals stage, although this season that achievement has been trumpeted even earlier in the competition (more on that later).
In 2015, the FA sanctioned a change to the name of the competition. The FA Cup became the Emirates FA Cup. And why did they sanction this name change instead of calling it ‘The FA Cup sponsored by Emirates’ as they had done with previous sponsors? Well, money, of course. The words ‘The FA Cup’ stood for something. It re-enforced the standing of the competition in the eyes of the world, re-iterating how it was ‘The’ cup competition, the original and the best.
By allowing the sponsor to have their name integrated into the name of the FA Cup has done irrevocable damage to the competition’s position. No doubt Emirates paid a much higher sum to allow the competition to be known as ‘The Emirates FA Cup’ rather than ‘The FA Cup sponsored by Emirates’, but did the FA really need to sell its soul to get the sponsorship? There’s no doubt that Emirates would still have paid a large sum to be sponsors of the FA Cup without having to integrate their name, an amount the FA would still have been able to utilise to benefit the competition, but the FA were greedy, putting the maximisation of profit ahead of the reputation of the FA Cup itself.
In 2016, the FA sanctioned the removal of replays in the FA Cup Quarter Finals. Was this decision made to benefit the FA Cup? Of course it wasn’t. It was made at the behest of the Premier League who wanted to free up more available days in the latter part of the season, in particular to help those clubs competing in the Champions League. Like them or hate them, replays have been an integral part of the FA Cup from its very early days. Designed to give away clubs the opportunity to counter the bad luck of being drawn away from home, their removal in a Round where a club still has home advantage showed how little the FA cared for the integrity of their crown jewel tournament.
In 2017, two things were sanctioned by the FA that were yet again not to the benefit of the FA Cup. The first was agreeing to allow Tottenham Hotspur to play their ‘home’ games at Wembley without any provision for what should happen if they were to be drawn at home or reach the Semi-Finals or Final of the FA Cup. Allowing Spurs to play home ties at Wembley in the FA Cup, just by itself, shows the FA has exhibited a complete dereliction of duty, but allowing any club to play a Semi-Final at the ground they have played their home league matches throughout the season shows utter contempt for the competition.
Whilst there has never been a rule that says Semi-Finals and Final should be played at neutral grounds, it has actually always been the case. The FA council decides where the games should be played, but for the interests of fairness at such a critical stage of the competition, no club has ever had an advantage. One hundred and forty-six years of FA Cup history discarded at the drop of a hat, or should that be at the opening of a chequebook.
The second thing the FA sanctioned this season that has been detrimental to the FA Cup has been to allow the competition to be used as a trial for VAR, Video Assistant Referees. Whatever your thoughts on VAR, and I’m no fan, to have some ties utilise it and others not means that not all clubs have been treated fairly in the competition. Moreover, what message does it send with regards to the standing of the FA Cup when it can be used as a trial for new technology. The trial of VAR has been chaotic to say the least. Yes, most things have teething problems, but in the case of the VAR trial there appears to be very little understanding of what potential issues there might have been and how to handle them. It’s been a very visible case of a badly handled trial and error, and the FA Cup has suffered as a consequence.
So, no matter the volume of voices decrying the home advantage afforded to Spurs in this year’s Semi-Finals (and potentially the Final itself), the FA will do nothing, having proved time and time again that they care not one jot about the FA Cup. All they seem to care about is how much money they can make!