In a break from the usual navel gazing at life at Coventry City, this week I take a look at the meaning of the FA Cup. A meeting with Conference North side Worcester City has the ingredients of a classic cup tie, but does the FA Cup still carry that weight of old for both the giants and the potential giant-killers?
Of course for 368 teams, the FA Cup began a long time ago in the middle of August. Through six qualifying rounds the dreams of West Allotment Celtic and Holker Old Boys have long since faded. The First Round Proper is the point at which the Football League meets the varied world of non-league football; cue a raised eyebrow of interest from the national football media.
Undoubtedly we will also see that time-old debate over the ‘Magic of the Cup’ trotted out once again. What exactly the ‘Magic of the Cup’ is, is difficult to define exactly. It involves those famed ‘giant-killings’ of yore but also requires that the top teams play their strongest line-ups whilst throwing in some nostalgia and fatigue at the state of modern football.
This ‘magic’ has in part eroded due to the increasing sense of stratification in the game today. League football is the priority for nearly every club in the land. An extra couple of league places in the Premier League is more valuable to clubs than the silverware that the FA Cup offers. We are even seeing clubs outside the Premier League eschew progress in the cup in favour of the league. For those running football clubs today, silverware is no longer the measure of success that it once was.
How does this state of affairs affect how non-league sides now approach the cup? Is a giant-killing still of any value when you are up against a second, third of even fourth string side? If the cup is second to the league for many in the Football League, why should that be different for those outside of the famous 92?
Macclesfield’s run to the FA Cup Fourth Round last season provides a somewhat depressing answer to this question. Macclesfield, just two seasons after relegation to the Conference, were struggling financially and were at risk of failing to make it to the end of the season. Somehow the Greater Manchester side destroyed Swindon 4-0 in the First Round and then edged past Brackley in the Second.
Macclesfield were then able to pull off one of those not-exactly-a-shock shocks in beating a heavily weakened Cardiff City side to make it the Fourth Round. In their tie with Sheffield Wednesday, manager Steve King proudly admitted that he had intentionally played for a replay. His summation was that they were more likely to lose if they set out to beat the Owls and that a replay would guarantee the club some all-important funds. When Sheffield Wednesday put on a cut-price ticket deal for the replay on a cold Tuesday night in February, Macclesfield protested vehemently.
This is because in the FA Cup gate receipts are split 50-50 between the home and away side. For non-league teams, the cup provides the opportunity to access the kind of revenues they could only dream about. For those in danger of financial ruin, success in the cup can be a matter of life and death. The decision to pursue success in the FA Cup is not about glory but money.
For clubs the better run non-league sides, the money from a good cup run can be truly transformative. Take Exeter City for example, in 2005 they had recently been bought by their fans and were struggling to get back into the Football League. They then drew Manchester United away, the absolute dream scenario.
Over 67,000 watched Exeter’s 0-0 draw at Old Trafford and although the run ended after the replay, it was the start of something special. In the space of four years, Exeter went from being directionless in the Conference to being League One side playing attractive football under one of the most talented managers in the country.
The old sense of the ‘Magic of the Cup’ where a big team meet a small team and everyone is taking it seriously is very rare these days. That is not to say that the ‘Magic’ is gone altogether, it is a new and different interpretation that has adapted to the demands of modern football. It allows some of that wealth from the top of the game to find its way to the very bottom of it and in the most meritocratic way possible, on the football pitch.
This version of the ‘Magic of the Cup’ gives fans, players, managers and directors of non-league sides a genuine reason to pursue cup glory. We have also been seeing the top clubs in this country re-focus their efforts on the cup in order to satisfy their expectant fans. The FA Cup retains massive relevance in this country, especially as Sheffield United and Bradford have shown recently that even third and fourth-tier sides can find glory in domestic cup competitions. Nowadays the different types of winners in the competition can see longer-lasting benefits than simply one great day out.
This Sunday, Coventry City take on Worcester City at the Ricoh Arena, it is a classic ‘David meets Goliath’ scenario. For Worcester City, 12 months ago homeless and on the path to relegation from the Conference North, this tie provides an opportunity for a hard-up club to showcase what they are about and earn some money that could put them on a stable footing. For me, this game is a great example of this new ‘Magic of the Cup’ in action.