There was a lot of discussion about FA Cup replays last week, but frankly it missed the point. The competition’s problem is not structural; it is more fundamental than that.
Yesterday saw the tie of the round: Premier League Champions and 2012 winners Chelsea played Premier League runners-up and 2011 winners Manchester City in a clash between the two most recent champions and two of the richest clubs in the world.
The game was a farce. City fielded a youthful team so second string that its shirt numbers added up to over 400. The youngsters were outplayed by a Chelsea first team out to retrieve its only hope of domestic honours this season. There was never the remotest chance of a replay, as the London side could even afford to miss a penalty and still win 5-1.
This has implications. For the competition, it renders it close to meaningless. For fans, it devalues matches played in the tournament. For sponsors and broadcasters, it surely makes them think again. Some teams are motivated; others are not; the trophy itself is stained. There was no “magic of the Cup” on display at Stamford Bridge yesterday.
This has nothing to do with replays.
There is an obvious way around this. The FA Cup winners should qualify automatically for the group stages of the Champions’ League.
There is no reason this should not be allowed. The (English) FA selects its Champions’ League representatives and is free to do so in any means it wishes as long as it is on merit. Although League position is the most common means of deciding qualifying teams, it does not have to be – the Dutch FA has a playoff system, for example.
The specific reward needs to be not just a place in the Champions’ League playoff (as per fourth place currently), but directly into the group stages (as per top three). That way, even a team which was relatively confident of a top four challenge would have added reason to take the Cup seriously (currently fourth-placed City yesterday being an obvious example).
This would do no harm to the Premier League either – fourth place would still earn Champions’ League qualification of sorts if the Cup winner came from the top four, but it would no longer guarantee it, making the “medal places” the real objective as they should be. Most of all, however, it would restore the FA Cup to its rightful place as a prestigious competition more than worth winning.
With replays. Of course.