The call for FA Cup replays to be scrapped has become an annual tradition in its own right. Each year, managers complain that their squads are already overstretched and can’t contend with any additional games. To their minds, something must be done.
Typically, those protesting the loudest are in charge of Premier League clubs and so have no shortage of players to choose from, although Oxford United’s Karl Robinson choosing to join the chorus after his side earned a 0-0 draw at St. James’ Park was an interesting, if unexpected, development.
More predictably, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have both said that getting rid of replays would help ease problems with fixture congestion, but this overlooks the importance of a longstanding FA Cup tradition and one which can be a lifeline for lower-league clubs.
For those not flush with Premier League millions, securing a replay can be a huge financial boost, especially if the match happens to be televised. It can set clubs up for years to come, helping them secure better training facilities or make much-needed ground improvements. It's inconsiderate of elite managers, who face no such pressures, to simply disregard that.
Speaking from a position of immense privilege, they ignore what the FA Cup is really about. Its appeal is built on underdog stories. Hundreds of teams take part in the hope that they might have the chance to topple a giant, no matter how unlikely that is to happen. Memories are made and cult heroes created in parts of the country that are so often overlooked.
Shrewsbury Town and Jason Cummings provided a perfect example of that at home to Klopp's Liverpool. They came roaring back from 2-0 down to earn a deserved replay, which gives players and supporters the rare treat of a match at Anfield, against what is currently perhaps the best club side in the world.
The fact that Klopp and his first team won’t be present, with Neil Critchley and his Under-23s players taking their place, will give Shrewsbury a better chance of progressing, but inevitably take some of the gloss off a special occasion.
Klopp has chosen to stick to Liverpool’s previous schedule, observing their planned two-week break in fixtures instead. Although it’s the manager’s prerogative to prioritise matches however he sees fit, and marshal his resources accordingly, it’s telling that the two competitions which receive this dismissive treatment are the least financially rewarding ones.
A full-strength Liverpool side participated in the Club World Cup, which is little more than a ceremonial money-spinner, and there are few objections to the size of the Champions League, and its bloated group stage, because of the revenue it guarantees for even the worst qualifiers.
Regrettably, this feels like just another instance of the biggest and most powerful clubs dictating terms to those further down the pyramid, when the FA Cup doesn’t belong to them and its inclusivity is such a great strength. Their self-interest should have no influence on the future of such a venerable institution.
Player welfare is an important consideration as the football calendar becomes ever more tightly packed, but when Premier League clubs are willing to embark on unnecessary end-of-season tours in potential growth areas like Asia and North America, they can surely cope with the demands of an FA Cup replay. If they’re keen to avoid the hassle, it might help to put out a stronger side to begin with.
The physical and mental strain that fixture congestion places on footballers, including those who also have punishing international schedules, like Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah, is an understandable concern, but focusing on the FA Cup misses the point. Although a discussion needs to be had about the number of matches currently being played, there are far more deserving targets for Klopp’s frustration.
It’s not as if lower-league clubs don’t play a lot of football too, just with less money, worse facilities and smaller squads to help soften the blow. The replay at Anfield will be Shrewsbury’s 39th match of the season and Liverpool’s 41st, but interestingly only one side is complaining about it.
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