That it took the worst pandemic in over a century to prompt even temporary scrapping of FA Cup replays says rather a lot about the stubbornness of English football.
Half the reason we lagged behind for so long – internationally and, probably to a lesser extent, domestically – was the FA’s faith in the divisive, long-ball beliefs of Charles Hughes, the organisation’s director of coaching from 1983 to 1994 and author of The Winning Formula, the controversial book on how the game was supposed to be played, while perfectly standard concepts like pressing and squad rotation only felt normalised on these shores relatively recently. There’s always been a certain resistance to change.
While replays had been scrapped from the fifth round onwards in 2018/19, only this season were they removed from all stages. As we’ve heard nothing to the contrary, it would be fair to assume they’ll be back next season. That they’ve lasted this long, though, feels like little more upholding tradition for tradition’s sake.
You’d surely be hard pushed to find anyone who’s genuinely missed replays this season. If you believe in the romance and magic of the Cup, you can’t have been disappointed. In the four ‘proper’ rounds so far, lower division teams have turned over higher-ranked opponents 22 times. In 2019/20 there were an abnormally low nine upsets from the first round to the final, but 2018/19 saw 21, while 2017/18 and 2016/17 – the last to feature fifth-round replays – both had 27. Only 21 of those 84 shocks came in replays. There is nothing to suggest that ‘trying again’ advantages the underdogs in any way.
Two of the greatest, most iconic giant-killings in FA Cup history were non-League Hereford United and Sutton United toppling top-flight Newcastle and Coventry respectively. The former was a replay; the latter was not. In fact, think of all the potential giant-killings that never happened because the giant got let off the hook with a replay.
Take Marine’s run to the third round and that dream meeting with Tottenham Hotspur last month, for example. The non-Leaguers had already come through seven rounds, progressing once after extra time and twice on penalties. Would they have knocked out Colchester, four divisions higher, had their first-round tie gone to a replay? Probably not.
Quick and convenient means of settling stalemates in knockout competitions have existed for decades. Extra time may be almost as old as the FA Cup itself – the 1875 final between Royal Engineers and Old Etonians was the first major game to go to an extra 30 minutes; shootouts have been used in club football for over 50 years. Replays could have been consigned to history in the 70s.
Of course, a plum extra game – particularly a lucrative trip to an Anfield or an Old Trafford – can be financially crucial to clubs further down the pyramid, but you’re lucky if you get one. Adjust the standard 50-50 gate receipt split so that it’s weighted in favour of the lower-ranked club and one tie will suffice.
Besides, with proper financial reform in the EFL and below – where reckless owners have made far too many headlines in recent years – clubs shouldn’t have to rely on ‘football fortune’ for stability and survival. Salary caps were introduced in League One and League Two this season, so the powers that be do seem to be making at least small steps in the right direction at long last.
Ultimately, replays were almost certainly going to disappear for good in the near future anyway – modernity usually wins out in the end, and in this case, it’s common sense too – but why wait any longer? Is it not easier to leave things as they are rather than reinstate just to remove again?
The impact of Covid should have made football rethink numerous elements of its make-up – some quite complex, others easily reformable. Replays fall into the latter band. The game will not miss them and they’ll look as alien to future generations as back-passes do now to anyone who’s grown up since the early 90s.
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