Get the crowds back inside
This season’s third round saw eight Premier League and Championship sides’ attendances shrink by more than 10,000 from their preceding league game.
Cardiff recorded the most dramatic drop, with over 75% fewer fans turning out for their 2-2 draw with League Two Carlisle than their 1-1 Boxing Day stalemate against Millwall. Bluebirds boss Neil Harris echoed the sentiments of many of his fellow managers, labelling the festive period “crazy” and calling for a reduction in league fixtures during it.
That’s one potential way to boost numbers in the stands, which is bound to dwindle as belts tighten post-Christmas, but clubs could do worse than to get proactive themselves in a bid to restore some atmosphere. Reducing ticket prices and letting kids into lower profile ties for free ought to go a long way. It would also help if kick-off times weren’t so at the mercy of the TV companies.
Regardless of whether or not Liverpool go on to lift the trophy, Curtis Jones’ worldie against Everton will appear on FA Cup montages for years to come. 18-year-old local lad wins it by becoming the youngest Merseyside Derby scorer in a quarter of a century? You just can’t script that.
Such moments of unadulterated joy epitomise the special stage this competition remains for fledgeling stars to announce themselves. Managers may be accused of disrespect for ringing the changes, but it’s long been unrealistic to expect them to field their strongest XI in something which is no longer given as much priority as the league. That’s just the reality of the modern game.
So we can do one of two things: we can either realise that the FA Cup represents arguably youngsters’ best opportunity for first-team football early in their development, or we can bemoan the perceived weakening of teams and then complain that emerging English talent doesn’t get enough of a chance and that it’s harming the national team. Take your pick.
Just because they’re part of what makes the FA Cup unique doesn’t mean they’re objectively a good thing.
Premier League teams play a minimum of 40 games a season in all competitions, but 50-plus is perfectly common for some - in 2018/19, Chelsea played 63 and Manchester City 61. In the EFL, the minimum increases to 51. Unnecessarily adding to the fixture calendar these days seems absurd, not to mention that underdogs have more chance of pulling off an upset if the tie is decided on the day.
However, there is a ‘but’ here: if replays are to be fully consigned to history - they’re already gone from the fifth round onwards - the current 50-50 gate receipt split needs to be weighted in favour of the lower-ranked side. Still, if proper financial protections were introduced, clubs further down the pyramid wouldn’t have to rely on so-called football fortune to sustain themselves.
Ditch Wembley semi-finals
The current Wembley may not have the character or history of the old Wembley, but it is Wembley nonetheless. Even the Millennium Stadium, the venue for English domestic football’s showpiece games between 2001 and 2006, held a certain prestige.
With the national stadium hosting the last three games of the FA Cup for over a decade now, semis and finals somewhat coalesce into one. A semi-final should be an occasion – but not that much of an occasion.
Is it too much to hope for a return to Old Trafford and Villa Park once the building costs have been recouped? Probably.
Either use VAR or don’t
At present, the only ties to benefit - in the loosest possible sense - from VAR are those at top-flight grounds, which make up 13 of this month’s 32 third round ties.
As Tranmere came from 3-0 down against Watford at Vicarage Road, they won a penalty by virtue of a VAR review; should an incorrect decision be made in the replay at the League One side’s Prenton Park, though, it will stand. Where’s the logic?
Unless Champion Hill and York Road are treated the same as Anfield and Old Trafford, VAR makes as big a mockery of the FA Cup as it’s currently making of itself.
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