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Saviour the moment; Ben Watson rising highest at a corner kick to head home the only goal of last May’s FA Cup final, cementing Wigan Athletic into FA Cup folklore with a victory over Manchester City. Saviour the moment, because the FA Cup, a competition steeped in the history and heritage that Watson and Wigan claimed a piece of in May, is slowly beginning to see those moments ebbed away.
It is indeed worrying that Paul Lambert, in the build-up to his side Aston Villa’s third round game with Sheffield United at the beginning of January, claimed that the bigger clubs are usually ambivalent to the trophy, treating it as an unwanted irrelevance that compromises league form.
“If they were being honest, they probably would do (avoid the competition)” said the Scot, “It is realistic. That is the nature of it. If anyone says any differently then I am not so sure they will be telling the truth because the Premier League is the most vital thing that anyone wants to get into and we are no different.”
With first tier broadcasting rights set to top £5 billion in the summer, it can be argued that Lambert has a point, a betrayal enough over the importance of a cup steeped in history and heritage. It was an insight into the reduced reputation of England’s prime domestic competition that has been harmed not only by the juggernaut of the Premier League, but also by the gross unbalance of finances that are now undermining the English game.
This week in the third round of Wigan’s defence of the trophy, the Latics, now of the Championship after last season’s relegation, were required to travel to MK Dons for a replay on the Tuesday night. On the Wednesday, it was time for last year’s losing finalists Manchester City to play Blackburn Rovers but they, unlike MK Dons and Wigan, would play in front of the television cameras. City, with a squad assembled at a cost in excess of £400 million, duly demolished Blackburn, who have had to borrow £36 million just to remain credible Championship opposition, by 5 goals to 0. Alvaro Negredo and Edin Dzeko, City’s strike pair who netted two goals each in the rout, cost more combined than the whole of Blackburn’s squad.
ITV’s logic in screening City, who have registered victories over Spurs, Manchester United, West Ham, Fulham, Arsenal, Newcastle and Norwich by scoring at least 4 goals at the Etihad, was misguided if it was a search for the most competitive, or even the most romantic tie. The true spirit of the cup, constantly reiterated in Bookie William Hill’s sponsorship of the coverage, would probably have best been found at Peterborough, where Kidderminster Harriers of the Skrill Premier defeated a side residing two leagues above in League One.
Harriers, on an average attendance of 2,210, earned £67,000 for their win at London Road and the scorer of the winning goal, Joe Lolley, transferred to Huddersfield the following day for a six-figure fee. The story however was wilfully ignored in favour of boosting the coffers of Manchester City, bankrolled (at a rate of a massive $1.15 billion in little over five years) by the ruling family of oil-rich Abu Dhabi, to the tune of £144,000, the fee given to teams who have the luxury of being screened in this season’s competition.
In the fourth round, that luxury was given to AFC Bournemouth and Liverpool, perhaps righteously as Eddie Howe’s men were presented with a viable chance of an upset despite the form of Brendan Rodgers’s Premier League title challengers. However, the Reds managed to pick up a 2-0 victory.
Tomorrow, Chelsea host Stoke City in an all-Premier League tie, putting on display the humdrum banality the cup is supposed to provide an escape from. There were opportunities for upsets at Southend, Port Vale, Rochdale, Bolton, Birmingham and the holders Wigan who knocked out Crystal Palace, yet they are all restricted only to highlights, at a fee of a mere £6,500 per club, whilst Chelsea get a prime-time helping of the prize-money bucket because their Oligarch-funded squad boasts the most attractive of names.
Coventry are also inconvenienced by television as they travelled to Arsenal for the first screened match of the weekend on Friday evening. The Sky Blues, locked in a bitter dispute over the tenancy of their stadium and having just escaped from administration, will no doubt welcome the £144,000 income but it will come at the expense of the supporters.
Jan Mokrzycki, spokesperson for supporters’ group Sky Blue Trust, said:
“The general reaction seems to be that it is not a very good idea because people are going to have to take time off work and some people might not be able to go.” It is a plum draw for the League One club, getting the rare chance to travel to the Emirates to face the Premier League leaders, though many may have to sacrifice the privilege in favour of pleasing BT Sport’s schedule. “Basically supporters are the least of the minor considerations – it’s money first, money second, money third and oh yeah there’s the supporters.” said Mokrzycki.
It is a resentment that has been exacerbated by controversial Coventry owners SISU and their decision to, perhaps unwisely, turn down an extra allocation of 3,500 in fear that the difficult timing will lead to unsold tickets that Coventry would have to pick up the tab for. It can be construed as good business sense though this is the FA Cup, the competition that permits eleventh in League One to travel to deluxe Premier League grounds and there is something disconcerting about denying fans that day out in preference to watching the purse strings. That in itself is an indicator into the balance of this tie. Arsenal, who have had to spend £42 million on Mesut Ozil just to compete with the behemoths Chelsea and Manchester City at the summit of the Premier League, hosting Coventry, a side who have just emerged from a transfer embargo after narrowly avoiding liquidation in the summer, the word “contest” is used very loosely.
The romance of the cup is still a beating heart, Oldham’s victory over Liverpool last year and Sheffield United’s 1-2 win at Aston Villa this time around has shown that the lower leaguers can still dream. It should please many fans however, that Swansea’s surprise victory at Manchester United in the third round means the Red Devils won’t feature on television again in this year’s competition, they are on an astounding run of 42 consecutive games to be featured on the box. It is suggestive that the bigger clubs are always the draw regardless of who they face, not the smaller ones that so often provide the magic and the incredulity the cup is renowned across the globe for.
This year’s final will mark 6 years since Portsmouth won the trophy by beating Cardiff 1-0 at Wembley and now languishing in League Two after a torrid time of financial mismanagement, the south-coast club epitomise the great deal of risk involved in attempting to compete at the top and what happens when it falls apart. All the cup now provides to so many when they come up against those at the top is a good day out, as Barnsley and Blackburn (both 5-0 losers at Manchester City in the past year) have found out, rather stealing away any sense of competition. Wigan and Portsmouth have provided the anomaly in the recent years as over the past 18 cups, Manchester United, City, Arsenal and Liverpool have shared 16 of them. The FA Cup can still extend a bridge from the big guy to the little guy, though it is over an ever-widening chasm. True competition in the FA Cup is slowly beginning to die out.