This weekend, in a line surely designed to troll Arsenal fans everywhere, one tabloid wrote off the FA Cup as a competition only Arsenal were bothered about winning.
Such a viewpoint was backed up, somewhat, by Piers Morgan. One of Arsène Wenger’s fiercest critics, Morgan described the most famous cup competition in the world as “second tier“. Amongst the right thinking Arsenal fans offended by this viewpoint was a certain Ian Edward Wright – no surprise there then.
Clearly, if the FA Cup was indeed a second tier competition, it would validate the unstinting criticism directed at Arsène by Piers (and others). You know, what with Arsenal having won the last two editions of this competition, but only these trophies in the last 11 and a half years. To highlight a point I have made before, the last game we lost in the FA Cup was at home to Blackburn after which Le Boss was accused of not taking the FA Cup seriously. He’s pretty much put that accusation to bed since, I think you’ll agree.
So let me get this straight – Arsenal lose in the FA Cup, it’s because we haven’t given the competition proper respect. Arsenal win the FA Cup (twice in succession) – it’s because nobody else is bothered about it.
Is it just me, or are the goalposts being shifted just to suit arguments?
I realise that as I write this article the weekend has just seen rotated and weakened sides on display in the third round of the competition. However, only an idiot would not see the round Premier League fixtures scheduled in midweek as a contributory factor. I’m pretty sure that this is the first time such a thing has happened. When you factor in the traditional forcing of as many Premier League matches as possible down with the Christmas turkey, it’s easy to see why the players might need a breather at the dawn of a new year.
And what better opportunity than the third round of the FA Cup?
With the probability of drawing lower league opposition, most Premier League teams can take the opportunity to rest a few legs and still get the job done. Unless you’re Swansea.
Those faced with Premier League opposition, as Arsenal were this weekend, might choose to roll the dice and rest a few names anyway, as Arsène did. Happily, the gamble didn’t backfire. This is in part because Sam Allardyce, knowing in his heart that despite his bravado his record against Arsène is actually pretty poor, looked at his chances of getting a win at Arsenal and decided it was best not to bother too much about it. Did Sam Allardyce devalue the FA Cup? You could argue he did. You could also argue that his team were unlikely to win in north London and with Sunderland focused on Premier League survival, Allardyce chose pragmatism.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but then my team were beneficiaries of such a choice. How many times have we seen Arsenal be the victims of Arsène’s own pragmatism on matchday six of the Champions League group stage? Is Mr Wenger devaluing the competition by prioritising Premier League assignments? Maybe yes, but maybe he’s just trying to marshal his resources effectively, whilst still getting a job done.
As Mauricio Pochettino tried to do this weekend. Here’s a question for you: if the FA Cup is so irrelevant, why bring Harry Kane on with twenty minutes left to try and rescue that game?
It was interesting to listen to 606 at the weekend. Particularly with Piers Morgan sitting alongside Ian Wright. Having interviewed Wrighty last year I know just how much he thinks of the FA Cup. Not that you need to have interviewed him to know that, it’s obvious whenever he talks about the FA Cup. It was illuminating to listen to the Oxford fans ringing up in sheer delight at what their team achieved at the weekend. I think that the level of their delight highlights something that those of us who support big teams forget; the FA Cup allows everyone to have their day. It democratizes, a little, football.
I still remember, I don’t think I’ll ever forget it in fact, turning on the radio to hear news of Arsenal’s 1992 FA Cup defeat at Wrexham. I remember instinctively laughing at this news, before realising how much fun school was going to be on the Monday. This was the champions of England, with the likes of Smith, Wright, Rocastle, Adams, Seaman and Merson being beaten by the team who had finished at the very bottom of the football league the previous season.
And you may say that this was then and now is now, but then you’d be forgetting how Chelsea were 2-1 up at home to Bradford City last season and then got their pants pulled down by Jon Stead. I joked about a national day of mourning in the event of Rick Astley’s death on this week’s Daily Cannon podcast, but that game felt like it should have provoked a national day of laughter.
Ultimately, you can’t really put a price on these experiences. Bradford City would have felt like the kings of England that weekend, just as Wrexham would have 24 years ago. God, does typing that make me feel old!
Whilst I have looked on in horror as the FA have moved the once traditional 3pm curtain call for the season to 5:30pm, to a day including a whole round of Premier League fixtures, it doesn’t change the fact that it is the FA Cup final. Or that me and James Craddock felt like the kings of England as we cavorted around north London, celebrating FA Cup win #12 last May. And, yes, just like everyone else who’s won it in the 9 years between 2005-14, we celebrated. We weren’t moping around at home, going, “Oh, it’s only the FA Cup…”
As Wrighty acknowledged in our interview, the Champions League final may now be the game that kids grow up wanting to play in. Realistically, though, only a select group of players from a select group of clubs will ever do it. Players from Millwall, Wigan, Portsmouth have all contested, and even won, the FA Cup in recent years.
It may have lost a bit of its lustre, but it is still the competition that provides an opportunity for any footballer anywhere to become a hero – just for one day. That is not something which can, or should, be devalued.