The third round draw for the FA Cup took place this week – and was met with apathy from most football fans. The FA Cup final used to be the jewel in the crown of the domestic sporting calendar. The culmination of our most beloved competition. We’d see non-league sides turn over established lower division clubs in the first two rounds (such as Vauxhall Motors beating QPR in 2002), and see basement-dwelling no-hopers put away star-studded giants of the game (Wrexham’s famous 2-1 victory over a full-strength Arsenal in 1992) in the third and beyond.
It’s even brought clubs with little in common together. Cardiff City’s run to the 2008 final started away at Chasetown, the lowest-ranked club to ever reach the third round. The home side – from the British Gas League Midland Division – were concerned they couldn’t actually host the game. Instead of demanding to play it at Ninian Park, Cardiff sent stewards and support staff to The Scholars Ground to ensure the day ran smoothly, and even helped out with printing the programmes. Before Ninian Park was demolished, Cardiff donated hundreds of seats to Chasetown. The two clubs now play an annual preseason friendly.
Where the competition used to show clubs what they had in common it now just emphasises the differences. In 2013 Luton Town became the first non-league club to beat a Premier League team and yet no one really cared (unlike when semi-pro Sutton beat top-flight Coventry in 1989). Norwich lost but knew Premier League survival was the only thing that mattered. All the cup does is congest the fixture list, right?
As football fans we have a decision to make. Should we just let the FA Cup die? Should we accept that our memories of clubs battling it out at Wembley on sunny days in May – Dave Beasant’s penalty save, Gazza’s crazy tackle, Keith Houchen’s diving header – should be just that: memories.
I say, no. I say, let’s save it. Perhaps using one of these six radical proposals we’ve drawn up.
1. Seeded, no draw
Under these plans the draw would be done away with and the lowest ranked team would automatically get a home fixture against the highest ranked. With this, Salford and Whitehawk (if they came through their replays) would be hosting Leicester and Arsenal respectively rather than Derby and Bolton. The more matches there are like this the more chance of an upset and guarantees a full stadium at the small club. Fans of Premier League clubs aren’t turning out for these games so why play them there?
2. Pick your opponent
This concept has already been used in rugby league and adds an extra layer of strategy. Unlike in that sport, we’d give the advantage to the lowest team. So let’s say Salford are the lowest-ranked team in the third round, they could opt to make Manchester United come to them for a huge local occasion or perhaps pick Whitehawk to increase their chances of making it into the fourth round. Not only would it create the matches the lower league teams really want but the announcements themselves, happening live in real time, would make for great TV – far better than the current televised draw.
3. Cap ticket prices for teams in top two divisions
Going to Premier League or Championship matches is expensive so perhaps we shouldn’t blame the fans who don’t buy their clubs’ FA Cup tickets. But if no adult ticket (excluding hospitality) cost more than £10 and you could take children for £1 you’d pack out these big stadiums and give many young fans their first taste of live football. The TV deals means Premier League clubs are no longer reliant on gate receipts so there’s no financial damage there. Gate receipts are currently split 50-50 so lower league teams are already suffering – this would make little difference to the payday.
4. Punish clubs for resting players
It’s hard to get excited about the third round when you know managers use it as a chance to give their best players a week off. To counteract this, any player who misses an FA Cup tie after having played in his club’s previous league game must also sit out the next league game (there's already something similar in the Football League Trophy, where at least six of the previous league game's starters must appear in the cup match). If it’s a genuine injury no one suffers. If it’s a ruse then you’d better get used to giving a player a two-week break.
5. Fix the semis
We know that the FA stages the semi-finals at Wembley because the stadium was so expensive but it really detracts from the final. Either go back to the good old days of semis at Villa Park etc or mix things up at Wembley. How about making the last three matches of the FA Cup a ‘final four’ tournament held in a fortnight? All four teams play each other at Wembley in a group stage: a double-header on the Saturday with then a match each night Monday-Thursday. The top two play in the final on the Saturday. It would be a logistical nightmare but a money-spinner and perfect for TV.
6. Make the final special
Moving the final to a 5pm kickoff and playing league games on the same day is a scandal. The FA Cup should be at 3pm and be the very last game of the season. After the Champions League final and ideally after the Football League playoffs. It should be a day of football celebration for the entire country and bring the curtain down on the season. Who's with us?