As Chelsea reigned triumphant at Wembley on Saturday, David Moyes cut a disconsolate figure, as you would expect the manager of a losing team in the FA Cup final. Yet the Scot’s comments in the run up to the game said much about cup competitions in the modern era.
Toffees fans would have been delighted had Everton taken their first piece of silverware since 1995, but, according to Moyes, winning the FA Cup would be a “stepping stone” for the club. Not a great end to a highly creditable season for the Merysiders, but a stepping stone.
Similarly, Chelsea may have won the match, but the FA Cup only became a priority after the League title and Champions League prospects had rescinded. Similarly, given the squad Manchester United put out against Everton earlier in the competition, the feeling persists that Sir Alex Ferguson now only wants to win the cup insofar as it adds an extra trophy to the season as opposed to any particular significance to the corridors of Old Trafford.
Elsewhere, while the Champions League may still remain the trophy to win in Europe, it’s adopted a slightly tedious look to it over recent seasons (even if the games on display this season have, unusually, been worth tuning in for). For the second year running, three English teams competed in the semi-final, with at least one of the so far off the pace domestically it seems somewhat absurd to have them playing in a competition called the Champions League.
Then there is the Champions League’s unloved smaller brother, the UEFA Cup, soon to become the Europa League. Shakhtar Donesk may have celebrated wildly at their win, but, again the competition has lost whatever lusture it once had. First Bolton, in what was arguably one of their biggest nights in recent history, sent out a reserve team to Madrid in order to fight a relegation battle.
A year later, it was Aston Villa sending out name unfamiliar to the weekly teamsheets. Martin O’Neill may have personally apologised to fans, but the fact remained that Villa had passed up on their only realistic chance of silverware to chase a fourth place they rapidly found themselves in with no chance of achieving. And the end result? Qualification for a competition they’d already shown their contempt for.
It didn’t used to be like this. There was a time that cup success, be it European or domestic, meant something. Abroad, victories for Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United in the Cup Winners Cup felt like a huge achievement as opposed to a given. The UEFA Cup had a reputation as the hardest cup of all, as it caught the sides who’d been on the bubble the previous season. And the FA Cup was (and in my mind still is) the greatest cup competition in the world – the trophy that every team in Britain wanted to win.
Managers may moan that they detract from the league, but to the fans, there is nothing like a cup final to get the juices going. Dave Kitson may not give two shits about the FA Cup, but try telling fans of Reading and Stoke that dropping out of the cup with a whimper is a good thing.
There is a reason why cup finals are at the end of the season – they are the showpieces of the season. One thrilling game of winner takes all. Here, then, are ways that competitions can regain their sparkle.
Thankfully, UEFA did away with the endless group stages in 2003, which was threatening to drown the competition in a sea of mind-numbing indifference. Even so, the group stages remain the competition’s achilles heel.
With each team in the eight leagues of four playing each other twice, it feels a lot more than just six games, while something just doesn’t feel right when Internazionale can scrape through this stage with just two wins, while many of the games towards the end of the group stages end up as dead rubbers.
Then there’s the name itself: The Champions League. Previously reserved for those who won the title, it seems somewhat perverse that Arsenal, who have finished no higher than 3rd in the last four seasons, should get regular entry into the competition. Indeed, the final rounds in recent years have been tediously predictable, which is the antithesis of a cup competition.
That said, the current format works reasonably well, but there are ways to inject added spice into proceedings. To go back to its roots as a competition for league winners, only give those winners automatic entry into the Champions League. The rest must qualify for the right to take on Europe’s elite. Different names would get a crack at the trophy, and it would add a further element of unpredictability into the competition.
When AC Milan found themselves at Fratton Park last season, that game summed up what the UEFA Cup should have been about. One of the biggest names in Europe forced to go head-to-head against more unlikely qualifiers, with the underdogs still in the with a genuine chance of causing an upset.
Since the Cup Winners Cup was folded into the UEFA Cup in 1999 and more qualification spaces given over to the bigger league (England, Spain, Italy), the competition has slowly declined. AC’s trip to the south coast was somewhat of a rarity and increasingly managers are treating the UEFA Cup as a distraction rather than a worthy piece of silverware.
There’s little to suggest that the changes that have lead to its rebranding as the Europa League will add much shine to the competition. The problem here lies in the group stages. Last season the groups of five went on endlessly and the majority of fancied teams qualified. Trimming back the leagues will help but in an overpacked system where the Champions League reigns supreme, the idea of a dead rubber between Villa and Randers doesn’t exactly set the pulse racing.
The solution is a simple one: return to a straight two-legged knock-out competition. Failures from the Champions League would still be welcome, but they’d have to do it over a series of games rather than the comfort of a round robin to enable them to coast to the latter stages.
Meanwhile, a straight knockout competition would return the cup to what we love best: games where the unfancied side can upset a big name in Europe. Cup upsets are a key part of any competition, and the mini-league system takes this away. And would be something quite enjoyable seeing the likes of Arsenal, Bayern and Juventus having to travel to Iceland, Latvia, Croatia or even Craven Cottage to challenge for a trophy.
The FA Cup is currently stuck between a rock and a hard place. The world’s oldest, and greatest, knockout competition has been suffering criticism from all quarters in recent years. If the Big Four make the final it’s too predictable. If we get a Portsmouth v Cardiff final it’s because the cup has been devalued because Premier League teams don’t take it seriously.
Yet for all its critics, the FA Cup still remains a fantastic competition. From the start of August when some of the smallest teams in the country compete for that elusive prize of reaching the first round, to the day out at Wembley: the FA Cup remains special.
Where else could the likes of Hereford embarrass Newcastle or minnows Havant and Waterlooville twice score at Anfield? This season may not have had the stellar fixtures (hardly the competition’s fault – the draw is completely down to luck) but there was something joyful about Histon beating Leeds, while Droylsden’s epic tie against Chesterfield harked back to an earlier time of multiple replays.
And you try telling the likes of Kettering and Torquay that their FA Cup 4th Round ties didn’t matter. Or Exeter City or Burton Albion, both of whom arguably wouldn’t be in this position were it not for their ties and replays against Manchester United.
Yet there are problems with the cup. The lure of Champions League football and the terror of relegation has led to weakened teams in early rounds, although this is as much to do with problems in the League than the Cup. Nevertheless, the competition has become collateral damage due to these issues.
Manchester United’s withdrawal to play in the World Club Championship in Brazil hardly helped matters, and, in some respects, the competition has never really recovered.
The answer may be to increase the prize on offer, namely offer the winner Champions League football. If the final English spot was given to the FA Cup winner rather than the team that finished fourth, the bigger teams would take it more seriously, the middling teams would see a chance for Champions League riches and the smaller teams would have extra incentive to deny the big clubs a big prize.
Of course, there’s one other small step that would restore some of the shine to the FA Cup: take the semi-finals away from Wembley. The final should be a special day, an experience for fans. Having two Wembley trips in two weeks somewhat dilutes this.
Wembley should remain part of the prize, not merely another part of the process. Let’s keep the FA Cup special and send the semis back to Villa Park, the Stadium of Light and Goodison. It’s the least the competition can do.