John Giles: Fans are the only people keeping the FA Cup alive and they are being shortchanged
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FOR a number of years I’ve been worried and angry about the emasculation of the FA Cup and predicted that eventually, the competition would be diluted almost to irrelevance. We’re nearly there now.
To all intents and purposes, the FA Cup is a beaten docket but the fans still don’t think so and that’s the only thing keeping it alive.
They drove the first nail into the coffin when the FA persuaded Manchester United not to defend their title in the 1999/2000 season so that they could travel to Brazil for the inaugural World Club Cup tournament.
Emboldened by the English FA’s utter lack of respect for the FA Cup, managers began to field ever weaker teams in the name of squad rotation and they’ve been banging in more nails ever since.
The reason I’ve reached the conclusion that the FA Cup is finished is the extraordinarily casual way managers of all shapes and sizes referenced the fact that they were making wholesale cuts to their Cup teams, as if this is now the default position.
Not so long ago, a club would face ridicule and anger if they fielded a weakened team in any competition.
Apart from short-changing their own fans, the accusation was always levelled that emptying the reserve team and academy onto a pitch for a Cup tie brought the game involved into disrepute.
It was seen as unfair to every other team in the competition. Only the Premier League fixtures now carry that kind of taboo.
UEFA’s second competition, the Europa League, is a bit of joke and in recent years Liverpool, Spurs and Manchester City have put out weak teams in the group stage of the Champions League.
But last weekend, there were a couple of glaring examples which made me reach the sad conclusion that we are at a crisis point.
Eddie Howe surprised me when he cut the heart out of his team to face Millwall. I thought he was a man who is in the game for glory but the Premier League has changed him.
Bournemouth are the very team that I would expect to see embracing the Cup because not so long, it was the only competition which could give a club like that a glimpse of the big time.
But if they keep treating the FA Cup as an afterthought, it won’t be there to save their season in years to come, when they’ve been relegated and need a boost.
The second game which underlines the sense of decay is the way Cardiff City boss Neil Warnock treated the FA Cup tie with Fulham.
First off, the game was fixed for 11.30 on a Sunday to fit TV schedules which was a bad choice though not, as some have said, the main reason why fans didn’t show up.
Warnock flagged ahead of the game that he would be using his fringe players and that was much more significant.
At some point, Cardiff fans made a judgement and voted with their feet.
Only 6,000 turned up for the game and there were others like it during the Cup weekend.
The pictures from Cardiff’s stadium were stark. Just a few knots of supporters scattered around the ground, no atmosphere and no surprise when Cardiff lost the game.
The defeat probably made Warnock happy but it’s a risky business he’s engaged in.
Going to watch football games is a habit and in a modern world where there are thousands of things competing for everyone’s attention, it’s an easy one to break.
Club owners and the football authorities don’t seem to consider this when they make their plans and schedules.
Football fans are not an infinite resource and yet they are treated that way by greedy people who have no thought or feeling for the traditions which make the game great.
They think of the bottom line and when they look at the carve-up of gate money for Cup ties, they see the FA pocket a third, the away team a third and not much left to bolster the finances.
Accountancy is more important than glory for these people.
I genuinely don’t know where all this will end. The substance has been carved out of the FA Cup and I’m not sure how you put it back, other than by imposing sanctions on teams that field weakened teams.
That’s the way it used to be but I fear the horse has bolted at this stage and the FA Cup’s decline is terminal.