Cup half empty

England's premier cup competition is starting to suffer in popularity as ITV and Setanta take the rights

On successive days in December, the sports pages carried several pictures of excited young fans reaching out to touch players. Firstly Japanese children in Ronaldo replica shirts greeted Manchester United when they arrived in Tokyo for the Club World Cup. The following day Blyth Spartans fans ­celebrated the FA Cup second-round defeat of Bournemouth; it’s unlikely that their green-and-white shirts are available anywhere other than the club shop and a couple of stores in Blyth town centre.

Spartans went on to lose narrowly to Blackburn a fortnight later and it brought back memories of the last time they had reached the third round of the FA Cup, in 1977-78, when they took Wrexham to a fifth-round replay, played in front of 42,000 at St James’ Park. During the FA Cup’s 1970s heyday, such feats were not that uncommon, though – think of ­Hereford, Wimbledon, Leatherhead and Harlow. The giantkilling continued up the scale: Second Division sides Sunderland, Southampton and West Ham won the competition between 1973 and 1980.

Last season’s FA Cup was altogether remarkable, with the feats of Havant & Waterlooville and Barnsley, and three of the four semi-finalists coming from below the top level. This season’s competition has already produced several memorable matches, with a record eight non-League teams taking part in the third round. In view of this it’s a cause for ­concern that the audience for the third-round Saturday highlights show on terrestrial television should be down by 40 per cent on 2008.

This is the start of ITV’s four-year coverage of the Cup, for which they and partners Setanta outbid Sky and the BBC. At the time the deal was arranged it was widely suggested that the FA had made a mistake in consigning their flagship competition to channels that were sure to generate smaller audiences. The largely inept presentation of ITV’s third-round show on January 3 didn’t inspire confidence. Hartlepool’s 2-0 win over Stoke, which took them into the fourth round for only the sixth time, was given less than a minute, but that was an in-depth report compared to the brief goal clip that constituted the coverage of non-League Torquay’s 1-0 defeat of Blackpool.

It is always a difficult task to condense so many ties into the limited time, but ITV benefited from multiple postponements. The BBC’s hour and 20 minutes last year was rather more football time than the hour and a half the commercial channel managed; every sporting events feels more hurried when the presenter has to worry about the voice in his ear warning of an upcoming ad break. Viewing figures for live games will be far lower on Setanta than on Sky, too.

Under the old BBC deal, there were teatime games – real ratings winners – but the Cup was promoted as ­having returned to its traditions as much as possible: all the matches on Saturday and Sunday, with the draw on Monday lunchtime. Now we have a Friday-to-Monday event, for the benefit of Setanta, and the draw on Sunday afternoon, squeezed into the gap between two live ties.

The most non-traditional of cup competitions took place in December. The last time Manchester United contested the Club World Cup in 1999, they had to drop their defence of the FA Cup to do so. The FA hoped the participation in Sepp Blatter’s pet project would generate international support for England’s doomed bid to stage the 2006 World Cup. While United were in the process of becoming “world champions” this time, the big cheeses of England’s 2018 World Cup bid were also in Tokyo, slapping backs, buying meals and listening attentively to every bland platitude uttered by the 24 members of FIFA’s executive committee.

It will be a while yet before Lord Triesman and his team settle on a theme for the promotional DVD, but you can bet that it will incorporate the white cliffs of Dover, Big Ben and Shakespeare. There might even be a mention for the world’s oldest cup competition.

The deal to move the Cup to ITV and Setanta was signed by Brian Barwick in March 2007, ten months before Lord Triesman arrived. The hosts of the 2018 World Cup will ultimately be decided in December 2010, when ITV will be gearing up for their third attempt at producing a decent third-round highlights show. Setanta hope the rights will help make them a profitable concern, by encouraging people to take out subscriptions; we wonder whether they will regret their choice of terrestrial partners, if more slipshod coverage tarnishes the Cup.

Still, all is not lost for the FA: demonstrable skill at squandering the game’s valuable traditions may count as a plus point in FIFA circles, so maybe Triesman will want to keep quiet about the fact that Barwick has since departed.

From WSC 264 February 2009