Chelsea began the 2008/2009 season with astronomical expectations and a new manager in place, the fans and players were chomping at the bit to avenge the pain of coming so close in the Carling Cup, Champions League and Premier League in 2008.
However, for a multitude of reasons that warrant a topic unto themselves Chelsea were been unable to put in the sustained performances to exceed or match 2007/2008’s medal tally.
The FA Cup provides an opportunity to win the club’s first silverware since the domestic cup double in 2007 and is the only competition of the ‘near miss’ season that Chelsea did not finish in second place. It is the only competition that the club can win this season being feted as an end of season consolation prize and opportunity for Guus Hiddink to end his brief stint as manager on a high.
However in the build up to the final the question that lingers across the country from Stamford Bridge corridors and internet message boards remains:
‘How important is it for Chelsea to win the FA Cup and do we really care?’
This question reflects issues both inside the club and the general decline of the competition in the last ten years the competition has lost a lot of its prestige and in today’s global game it no longer seems to generate the interest and hype that it once did.
This decline can be attributed to a number of interlinked factors revolving around the themes of Money, Globalisation or both a few of which I have explored below.
Influx of overseas players
The romance of the cup may still burn in the hearts of the fans but the quality and passion of matches in the competition is dependent on how the players perceive the competition.
Whilst many players including the foreign contingent who helped win Chelsea’s first FA Cup for 27 years had a passion for the trophy to match any home grown talent; it is doubtful that all of today’s money driven mercenaries share the passion which drove players such as Roberto Di Matteo, Franck Lebeouf, Gianfranco Zola, Frode Grodas and Gianluca Vialli to glory in 1997.
With an ever decreasing number of English players in the Premier League the folklore and magic of the cup may be lost on many of the top Premier League players, who are not akin with the history and passion which has characterised the FA Cup for 138 years.
Attitude of Managers and Clubs to the Competition
Traditionally the scheduling and importance of the competition meant that managers selected their strongest team available for every round of the FA Cup regardless of their league position or other commitments.
The FA Cup has now become in many ways a more respectable version of the Carling Cup in which top managers take the opportunity to blood youngsters and rotate their squad players particularly in the earlier rounds against lower league opposition.
Manchester United and Alex Ferguson plumbed new depths this season when they selected a severely weakened side to face Everton in the Semi-Final at Wembley, this represents a serious snub to the competition.
This is not the first time that Alex Ferguson and Manchester United have treated the FA Cup with contempt. In the 1999/2000 season Manchester United, the current trophy holders withdrew from the competition, to prepare for the World Club Cup. This was despite being offered very generous concessions from the FA to participate .
In contrast to the rest of the top 4 Chelsea have resisted the urge to field weakened side in cup competitions fielding strong teams featuring only a sprinkling of youth/squad players showing an intent to win every competition which was, a key part of Jose Mourinho’s management mantra which has been continued to the present day.
The Global Appeal of the Game
Since the formation of the Premier League in 1992 English football’s stature across the globe has grown exponentially with satellite television and the internet making English football popular and accessible across the globe.
As with foreign players the root attachment to England’s flagship domestic knockout competition is weaker than fans weaned on the competition, with the Champions League and Premier League of higher interest. This is particularly true of the Champions League which offers added interest/rivalry to fans who may follow clubs from more than one national league.
Increase in the number of games in a season
The playing schedules for the top English clubs especially those with European involvement are more hectic than any other time in the history of professional English football.
For example Manchester united have played over 60 games this season so surely understandable that the squad is rotated and priorities set to ensure that the club has the best chance of winning the trophies that the board and manager deem as the most important?
Therefore can teams really be blamed for downgrading the FA Cup? Bare in mind there is often a gap of just a few days between games in other competitions, and with replays possible fixture congestion can quickly build up.
Merchandising and Television Revenue
A factor in the previous four reasons, money from merchandising and television revenue is a key part of a clubs income, which are generated from globalinterest in the Premier League and the Champions League. Success in these competitions is more likely to attract media interest, new fans and additional revenue streams.
This can therefore lead to clubs ceasing to prioritise the FA Cup and reducing the impact of failure to a level where sacrificing progress for future games is a risk worth taking.
These are the generic reasons that can be attributed to the decline in reputation of the FA Cup however the competitions importance varies from club to club dependent on circumstances, heritage and fan base.
When Cardiff and Portsmouth contested the final last season both teams were desperate to win the competition which represented a rare chance of silverware and success. Both teams benefitted from the FA Cup run bounce that used to lift every city or town with a team gunning for cup glory. The parade that followed Portsmouth’s and the reactions of the fans shows that the competition is still alive and kicking in many quarters.
It is still alive in Alfreton a team which progressed through to the second round for the first time in their history this season, their first round win attracted a record crowd and partisan atmosphere.
I am sure that the spirit of the competition is still thriving in the blue side of Merseyside, Everton have not won a major trophy in 15 years and will feel that it is time that there was a new addition to the Goodison Park trophy cabinet.
However how important is the competition to Chelsea?
As a Chelsea fan I up as the club was coming out of the darkest period in its history and the first sprouts of hope and evolution to the team we are today were exposed by two FA Cup runs, one ending in heartbreak the other with job. I have experienced the highs and the lows of the greatest domestic knockout competition in the world, I cried inside Wembley as David Ellerary handed Manchester United a league and cup double, and in 1997 I cried again but this time in joy as Roberto Di Matteo’s fastest goal in FA Cup history set Chelsea towards their first silverware in 27 years.
I have dedicated a whole section of my Chelsea fansite to the FA Cup and covered it from round one, I adore the construction of the competition, any that any team can win the trophy. I also love that small clubs with more modest goals, can progress from the early rounds to secure money spinning dream ties against one of the nation’s elite clubs. Winning this trophy in 1997 signalled the fruition of the first stages of Chelsea’s revival and set the club on its way towards its first Championship in 50 years forming a key part of the clubs history.
I fear however that after two league titles and a Champions League final that many with Chelsea affilations have become blasé about a competition which is so much more than a knock out competition. The lust may vary but the fans I speak to in the U.K are still passionate about the FA Cup despite and this is despite rumblings home and abroad that a crack at the FA Cup is scant consolation in a season where expectations were so high.
There is also the attitude of the board, players and management to consider, having won so much in recent history and such high expectation levels, can they match an Everton side full of passion, hope and desire? Will the desire to land a trophy for departing Guus Hiddink be enough to inspire Chelsea to get the job done?
There will be 27,000 Chelsea fans at Wembley and countless others across the world desperate for Chelsea to bring the trophy back to Stamford Bridge, with or without a victory parade.
Does the FA Cup matter to Chelsea? I guess we will all find out on the 30th of May.