Has The FA Cup Lost Its Magic?

Harry Chapman

The FA Cup is back. Some might say that football’s oldest club cup has lost its appeal, at a time when there’s more money than ever in the Premier League. Financially, it makes sense for clubs in the higher echelons of the football pyramid to chase that top-flight dream and the millions of pounds in revenue that come with it. The cup, therefore, is a distraction and not a priority. Harry Chapman gives his thoughts.

For years now, club ownerships, establishment media outlets, nostalgic observers of Cup Finals of the 80s and fans of Premier League teams have been singing off the same hymn sheet – that the FA Cup is not the competition it once was.

What people often don’t understand is that the real FA Cup is not just about who is lifting the trophy in May. This season’s FA Cup kicked off in August with clubs primarily from step nine of the English Football Pyramid entering the competition in the Extra Preliminary Round. A big occasion for many small clubs, regardless of the round, the games get tougher and more significant with every win as the prize money increases.

A part of the FA Cup magic is the fact that everyone loves an underdog. This season hasn’t been, and won’t be any different. For example, step-nine Long Eaton United, a mere 10-minute drive from University Park Campus, started in the Extra Preliminary Round, managing to get through four ties, three of them against opposition in the league above, before finally getting edged out in the third qualifying round by step-seven Stratford Town.

It’s clear, even in the qualifying stages of the competition, that being in a higher league and entering the competition later does not give you a divine right to win a cup tie. Herein lies the problem with a lot of league football. Uncertainty of outcome, a measurable statistic that makes all sport exciting, doesn’t exist. We can name the teams with absolutely no chance of relegation in the Premier League before the season starts because of their riches and their ability to snatch the World’s best players. The gap between the rich teams and the rest has grown to the point where most games end up being dead rubbers for the fans, only existing to line the pockets of club ownership and sponsors.

from Chasetown to Crawley, Woking to Wrexham, most non-league clubs have a story to tell

The same rules just don’t apply in the Cup. There is almost always at least some uncertainty of outcome. When Fabian Delph got sent off in the fifth-round tie between Wigan and Man City in 2018, it opened the door for the infamous Will Grigg to score the game’s only goal, completely against the run of play, to knock out one of the most dominant sides ever seen in English football.

Lincoln City became the first non-league club in the post-war era to reach the last 8 of the FA Cup when they beat Burnley 1-0 at Turf Moor in 2017. Historically, the examples are endless. From Chasetown to Crawley, Woking to Wrexham, most non-league clubs have a story to tell.

this is not a competition to be taken lightly

By the fourth qualifying round stage, there begins a little bit of excitement. Those surviving step seven and eight clubs have just one more tie to get through for a chance at the likes of some relatively massive clubs; clubs you wouldn’t be able to find on a map going for their shot at an away draw at outfits such as Ipswich Town, Sheffield Wednesday and Sunderland. Meanwhile, the fifth-tier National League clubs enter here, many of them professional outfits with an eye on the third-round where no team is exempt, and giants lie in wait. This is not a competition to be taken lightly. The chance for semi-professional footballers to play against players they only get to see in the back pages of the papers doesn’t come around all that often.

Onto the first-round draw. This season’s contingent of non-league survivors includes step eight AFC Sudbury, the lowest-ranked team left getting a dream draw hosting Colchester United residing just 15 miles away, to step seven Banbury United hosting Barrow in a real potential banana skin, all the way up to step five Notts County. Looking to ignore their perceived under-performance in the league, the Magpies will go to a struggling Rochdale side sitting 18th in League 2 in a game they won’t be considered too big an underdog in.

Most people concluding that the FA Cup is dead are only looking at the competition through the eyes of a major club.

So, anyone who reckons the FA Cup has lost its romance, or magic, well they’re just a bit silly aren’t they? Who cares if the final doesn’t have the fanfare that it had 30 years ago? The competition isn’t all about the finalists by any means. There are very few other sports where a team of working-class part-time footballers with second jobs can step onto a pitch against professionals earning hair raising salaries and still have a genuine shot of victory.

Sports fans value competitive contests. The FA Cup gives us this in a way no other sporting competition can.

Harry Chapman

Featured image used courtesy of Dave Gunn via Flickr. Image use license here. No changes were made to this image.

In-article image 1 courtesy of @stratfordtownfootballclub via No changes were made to this image. 

In-article image 2 courtesy of @afcsudbury_official via No changes were made to this image. 

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