15 February ~ On Saturday the Times revealed that the FA Cup faces a "radical overhaul" in order to revive interest in what is perceived, especially by the mainstream media, as an ailing competition. The FA's chief executive Ian Watmore has reportedly drawn up a list of proposals that include abolishing replays, playing games midweek and seeding teams for the draw. The newspaper described the plan as Watmore's "brainchild".
This makes Mr Watmore sound like quite the innovative whizzkid, but his brainchild will sound very familiar to anyone with a scant knowledge of German domestic football. The German FA Cup also has no replays, stages all its games midweek bar the first round and seeds teams in the early stages so that lower division teams enjoy home advantage and are guaranteed to play a team from either the first or second division. Some years ago the Football League spawned a brainchild of its own and applied much of the above to another under-loved English competition, the League Cup.
But the amazingly dynamic Mr Watmore did not just google the German FA website to produce his earth-shattering blueprint. The Times also reported that the FA Cup might be used to "give a trial to innovations such as goal-line technology or additional referees". Quite how this is going to bring the fans back into stadiums is not clear. Would it be the allure of having an extra ref to scream abuse at? The chance to see an actual goal line camera live, in action? Only a cynic would label it a glib plan to raise the competition's global media profile without adding anything of substance to the actual game.
That nonsense aside, the format for the German Cup is worth taking a look at. It's a compact, six-round competition spread across the entire season that doesn't place too many demands on the top-flight teams, who consequently field full sides and take the competition seriously. The early rounds broadly pit big against small and generally produce a few surprises. Naturally it takes second place to the Bundesliga, but it's a popular enough competition, helped by midweek broadcasts on free-to-view TV.
Our own FA Cup, by contrast, has for too long lived off its status as the oldest football competition in the world. The FA's proposed tinkering is a belated acknowledgement that just saying the word "tradition" over and over is probably no longer good enough for the Premier League generation. Is there really any good reason for replays, apart from historical precedent? Why should it not be a midweek competition? What speaks against seeding lower-league clubs against bigger ones? It's arguable whether or not any of these measures would change the competition for the better, but it's at least worth having the discussion.
It's well established that saturation live TV coverage robbed the FA Cup final of its special place in the football calendar and the subsequent race for Premier and Champions League cash caused the competition to fall in priority for clubs, media and many fans too. While on the field this season's tournament – and many of this past weekend's fifth round ties – have again proven that Cup football has plenty to offer, it's still the significantly poorer cousin in pure economic terms. Our fond memories of second and third replays in the 1970s will not compel managers to stop fielding weakened teams as long as we tolerate what the sensible Germans view as an insanely overcrowded fixture list. A dispassionate outsider might advise us to scrap the League Cup, reduce the Premier League to 18 teams and reform the FA Cup so that it's more of a joy than a burden. That's what you'd call a radical overhaul. Ian Plenderleith