ESPN Blogs
  • FA Cup

United on a Friday? Why the FA Cup's no longer worth it

Simon BarnesJanuary 22, 2015
Tottenham won the FA Cup in 1961 - when football was more about glory and less about money © Getty Images

Saying that you love the FA Cup is a bit like admiring Dusty Springfield. Sure, Dusty had one of the great soul voices, but very few people under 50 have ever heard it. And sure, the FA Cup was once the greatest football competition in England but, if you know that, you're giving yourself away.

There was - there really was - a time in football when glory was more important than money. Which meant that the cup was more important than the league. Danny Blanchflower was captain of the Tottenham Hotspur team that did the double in 1961, and he famously said that football was not about winning, but about "glory". Spurs were seen as cup specialists and all the better for that: Hunter Davies wrote one of the great football books, about a year in the life of Spurs, and called it - what else? - The Glory Game.

What price glory? Well, these days the FA and every club that plays in the Football Association Challenge Cup could tell you down to the last decimal point. If you mourn this change you show your age; if you go along with it with immense enthusiasm, you're probably hiding your age.

Cambridge play Manchester United on Friday night - part of television's hold on the FA Cup © Getty Images

So there's another FA cup weekend coming up and there are 32 teams left. Even my maths will tell you that requires 16 matches: yes, big meaningful numbers, numbers that go into eight and four and two and finally one - they have some real power. No artificialities like points and goal difference: you win or you lose. Sport distilled to its ultimate simplicity. The winner goes on, the loser loses everything.

But these days such matters are worked out with a balance sheet and a calculator. Take the schedule for the weekend. As a sort of retro concession there are actually nine matches kicking off at three o'clock on Saturday afternoon, but there is also a match at lunch-time and another at tea-time.

As for the rest, Cambridge United play the equally United Manchester on Friday evening, there are three successive matches - very hour on the hour - on Sunday afternoon and the 16th - cancel all engagements - is Rochdale v Stoke on Monday night.

You're going to have to work hard to miss every televised cup match over those four days ('ee, when I were a lad there were only one football match on't telly in a whole bloody year and that were t'Coop Final'). Yes indeedy, and I saw Blanchflower pursuing black-and-white glory and then catching it in 1961. And I probably listened to Dusty afterwards on the wireless.

But these days, glory is all out of fashion: these are the rigs of the times, times me boys, a the ballad goes. It's all about that spiritually-uplifting stuff called money instead. The FA's insistence on spreading Cup fixtures about wherever there's a camera - sidling onto our screens like Benny Hill as Fred Scuttle - is mirrored in the way clubs approach the matches in the cup.

Rest the stars. Give the kids a go. What matters is the league. You must avoid relegation and chase promotion because that's where the money is. It's not about chasing joy: it's about hard slog. It's not about doing something for love: it's about being professional. The cup is a distraction; so many clubs will field a weakened side and profess relief when they go out.

Teams from lower divisions and lower leagues take the same view. When a non-league club gets a third-round tie against one of the top clubs in the country, they will, given half the chance, turn down the chance of home advantage and play the match at the Premier League ground. They forfeit all chance of winning - of glory - in exchange for cash … reminding me of the club chairman who told his team: "And I promise you, lads, if we win I'll spend all the money on new players."

These days, league position is everything. In the Premier League fourth is now almost as good as first, because that means access to the Champions League, a competition designed to maximise possible revenue. A Premier League manager who expresses his ambitions to win the FA Cup is admitting his failure to win the league (see Brendan Rodgers for confirmation).

These days, glory is all out of fashion: it's all about that spiritually-uplifting stuff called money instead

So now we have the word "silverware". It means a cup whose main function is to stop supporters from being overly critical. The glory of the modern FA Cup is that it's slightly superior to that of the League Cup; sorry, I can't remember what the damn thing is called this year/The FA Cup is a better class of consolation prize, and that's the end of it.

Unquestionably, something has been lost. Perhaps the games from the Premier League balance it out; I'm not about to deny that in terms of drama and soap opera and quite frequently in action, the best Premier League games have a compelling quality … and perhaps we couldn't have that without running down the FA Cup.

Either way, that's modern football. For Manchester United to finish lower than fourth for the second season running would be a disaster; not because of the ignominy of defeat but for the consequent loss of revenue. If they finish fifth and win the FA Cup they will have failed.

Top-class football has become a thrilling and precarious balancing act in which money spent on great players has to come back in the results that bring revenue. It's nakedly and unashamedly about money, but that doesn't mean that the pursuit of such stuff doesn't produce decent sport.

It's sport for money's sake, not sport for glory's sake. Money has always been part of professional sport - how can it not be? - but these days money is everything, and it's a foolish illusion to think of it any other way.

Yet I feel ever so slightly Joni Mitchell about all this: I've looked at sport from both sides now, from win and lose and still somehow, it's sport's illusions I recall … I really don't know sport at all.

Arsene Wenger ended a nine-year trophy drought for Arsenal by lifting the FA Cup last season © Getty Images

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

Writer Bio

Simon Barnes was Chief Sports Writer at The Times and UK Sports Columnist of the Year in 2001 and 2007. He writes about a wide variety of sports for, as well as and ESPNcricinfo. He has written more than 20 books including The Meaning of Sport and three novels. On Twitter he is @simonbarneswild

Recent Posts

Blog Home