Prize of nothing

The world's greatest cup competition is being discarded by big clubs in favour of European riches. How long until it joins the cup scrapheap?

There is a certain inevitability about the way cup competitions acquire the smell of death. Clubs start putting out weakened teams, fans stop turning up to watch the early rounds, discouraging statements begin to seep from official sources and Chelsea end up with the trophy. We have seen it with the League Cup, which Liverpool lusted after so much that they won it four times in a row in the 1980s. Now the bookmakers are offering shorter odds on Manchester United and Arsenal winning the Champions League than the Worthington, because they know the top clubs see it as an inconvenience rather than a serious goal.

Even grimmer is the future of the European Cup-Winners Cup, now demonstrably reduced even in allegedly cup-crazy Britain to the international equivalent of the FA Vase. Having knocked away its last pit-prop of credibility by allowing second-placed clubs into the Champions League, Uefa seem about to deliver the last rites and bundle the Cup-Winners in with the Uefa Cup in forthcoming seasons. Which may spare us the spectacle of Gary Lineker and Mark Lawrenson openly sneering at the ECWC on Football Focus, but won’t do anything to enhance the logic of European qualification.

The FA’s announcement that in future there would be no space in the calendar for an FA Cup final replay can be taken as a sure sign that the oldest cup competition in the world is also rotting from the head down. Like the League Cup, the FA Cup has experienced almost static attendance figures since the mid-Eighties, while League crowds have risen by 50 per cent.

What is the disease afflicting it? A big clue can be found in the reasoning behind the decision to dispense with a final replay, namely that it might clash with the Champions League final the following Wednesday. It is a nonsensical argument, even if you believe either of England’s representatives is likely to be taking part. If the FA felt inclined to defend the reputation and credibility of its competition, there is no reason why the replay should not be held the following week, or that dates should not be co-ordinated in advance.

The bald assertion that fans favour the move will not wash either. “It has become clear over the years that fans going to Wembley would prefer to have a decision on the day,” the FA claimed. For which they offered precisely no evidence. In fact, quite apart from recoiling at the indignity of settling the Cup final by penalties, most fans would surely prefer the replay. For a start, many more of them can actually buy tickets for the game at face value, since the county FAs and the players don’t get the same generous supply to recycle on the black market.

The real reason behind the downgrading of the final – for that is surely what it is – is that the FA now has its fingers in more than one pie. Before the advent of the Premier League, the rivalry between the Football League and the FA ensured that both promoted their respective competitions to the utmost (whatever other idiocies that division may have entailed).

Now, both the Premier League and the FA Cup come under the aegis of the FA, but it would be wrong to say that the FA controls them. Instead it has effectively abdicated power to the leading clubs, and it is clear that their preference is always for leagues rather than cups, whether domestic or European. They guarantee revenue streams, the big names are rarely made to look foolish and they don’t have to demean themselves by trading insults with the likes of Stevenage.

Their apparent disdain for the event and the FA’s craven complicity will ultimately ensure that the Cup joins the list of those declining institutions – the BBC, the pub, the royal family – which we were once foolish enough to believe made Britain different (though not necessarily better).

Bert Trautmann wrote what now seems like an epitaph for the democracy of the Cup in his description of the singing of Abide With Me: “Then women and children from the grimy streets of the industrial town at last are on common ground with those from the stately homes of England. What does it matter if they are off key or are not quite sure of the words? Who need be ashamed of keeping silent because emotion will not allow otherwise? I think it is a wonderful thing, and one for which British sports lovers, regardless of politics and creed, are to be respected.”

The “common ground” was an illusion, of course, but one which the giantkilling legends of the Cup fleetingly made real on the pitch. Now Abide With Me is massacred by some tenth-rate crooner and the Cup is to be shuffled off the footballing calendar as quickly as possible for the benefit of the rich – not the “stately homes”, but their infinitely more mercenary and less sentimental corporate successors. Time for all that nonsense about the Cup being a great leveller to be parcelled up for Wembley tours as the  tournament completes its transformation into a minor branch of the heritage industry.

From WSC 141 November 1998. What was happening this month