It’s the common cliché of most pundits over the past 10 or so years; top clubs don’t value the domestic cups of their countries, especially in England. Whilst the FA Cup and League Cup certainly can’t compete with the Champions League in terms of financial reward, they certainly have prestige and history on their side. Question is, do most sides actually respect this? Are these cups actually relevant anymore?
Well, definitely for any football fan, these cups are vital signs of success for their clubs. If they are from the lower leagues, the glory and memories of even being matched up against, let alone beating, one of the so-called ‘top sides’ could be the highlight of their season, or for a number of years. This is without even mentioning the financial benefits of reaching the 1st, 2nd or in particular 3rd rounds for non-league clubs, as they could draw a big name and get a televised tie, with potentially club-saving amounts of money. For example, Exeter City were on the brink of administration after relegation to the Conference National in 2003, and were relying on supporter investment until January 2005, when they got drawn against Manchester United in the FA Cup 3rd round. As a result of this big tie and their 0-0 away draw, they gained £653,511 of gate receipts from a 67,511 attendance at Old Trafford. They also earned further income from a televised replay at home, which they lost 2-0, but still gained recognition and vital funds to wipe out its debts and sustain development for years on.
Despite all the lower league heroics and numerous upsets over the years in the FA Cup, very few shocks occur in the latter stages, ultimately resulting in the history of winners. In reality, 11 of the last 15 FA Cup winners have finished in the top three of the Premier League that season, proving that success on all fronts depends on the budget of a team, whether they have the richest owners and continual European qualification. There are of course anomalies to this rule; for example Wigan Athletic in 2012/13, which was their last glory before two relegations in the next two (and the end of 2012/13) seasons, proving they didn’t have a sustainable business model. This result is paralleled in Portsmouth’s FA Cup success in 2007/08, after which it is well reported that they went into administration and currently find themselves in League 2, less than 10 years later. So success only really works if it is backed up with sound financial planning, which is the only way any team is going to win the competition in our era of highly-valued continental competition.
But this obsession with Champions League success is what has led to a lack of interest from the big clubs in the FA or League cups, because they don’t need or prioritise the possible £3 million or so just from the FA for winning it after joining in the 3rd round, let alone gate receipts. This money, or any fraction of it, might be life-changing for a lot of clubs across the country, but the sheer big-headedness of the top five or six clubs in the Premier League means this money or the glory of the cup is irrelevant to them. This is why we see fringe or youth players being given a run out on FA Cup weekends or League Cup Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
But the thing is, even these big teams’ reserves are predominantly made up of non-British players, which is unbelievable considering the academies of these clubs are meant to represent the talent of the local area, not of countries thousands of miles away. Take the example of Manchester City, who have been lauded for their use of 19 year old striker Kelechi Iheanacho this season, who was born and raised in Nigeria. He has had his opportunity over local players released in the last season such as Devante Cole, who very publicly stated that “It is very cliquey at City. They’d speak Spanish on the training pitch.” He also stated that when “They started buying foreign boys for the academy all the English lads got pushed to one side. As you got older, you realised you wouldn’t get a chance of progressing no matter what you did.” This is an absolute disgrace from a club that claims to represent its local area, showing just how far foreign football culture actually affects our clubs, especially the mega-rich ones. It is a complete opposite of the Athletico Bilbao model, one I will likely focus on in a later blog.
Ultimately, it is not the heart or belief in a team that wins competitions like the FA Cup these days sadly, but it is the millions spent on a worldwide Galactico-style squad assembly technique. Manchester City have shown it, Arsenal have shown it, Chelsea have, Manchester United have and so have Liverpool. It is no strange coincidence that these teams have been continually winning the FA or League Cup for the past 40 years, it is because they have always had the financially capabilities and support. When the BBC use the tagline “Anything can happen” with their FA Cup coverage, it is just out of hopeless romanticism that they do so, because throughout this season, the biggest shock we have seen is a full-strength Oxford United beat a mostly second-string struggling Premier League side in Swansea City. If that is the best we’ll get, it will be a bad reflection on the BBC’s marketing team, and a shockwave to the FA. They will surely have to impose wide-scale changes to squad rulings at some point, with more English and British youth having to be supported, rather than reckless millions spent on imported talent. If clubs run by billionaire global tycoons are allowed to do whatever they like in examples like this, the chances of our National side with dwindle completely in years to come, ruining Greg Dyke’s aims of a 2022 World Cup win.
After all, look at the number of cups and leagues Barcelona have won over the last 5 seasons with their policy of about 20 high-level players mixed with between 5 and 10 local youth players. This results in a fair representation of Catalonian talent on a world-class level, which is amazing for their development, whether they end up staying at Barça or going on to play elsewhere, they are making positive moves to help young players at the club. I definitely believe this method can work with English clubs, as a little belief in hometown potential can go a long way in someone’s career, just look at the examples of Piqué, Iniesta and Xavi at Barcelona, where would they be without trust and opportunity.
Making the move to install new rulings by the FA would go a long way to improving the competition of English clubs in the Champions League, as it is proven sides with more home-grown talent are more successful, for example Barcelona, Juventus and Bayern Munich, who have all reached finals or won in the last three years. Meanwhile, Manchester City had just three English players in their squad this season (Delph, Hart and Sterling), all of whom weren’t even from City’s academy. If we make it as hard as possible for clubs to continue in this way, we will definitely see more success for our national side with highly skilled, more competitive players in the future. It should be right at the top of the FA’s agenda, as it is a serious problem in the game right now, one that simply has to be sorted as soon as possible. All of that just because of how ‘big teams’ treat the FA Cup. So yes, our domestic cups are very important today, much more relevant than most people could imagine, as they are truly critical to the success of football all across England.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!