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    The FA Cup: Distraction or Opportunity?

    Of the sixteen teams in the Fifth Round draw on Monday night, only half (providing Leicester overcome Derby in a replay) currently ply their trade in the Premier League. Wolverhampton Wanderers' win at Anfield and Millwall’s victory over Watford saw two significant Cup shocks involving top flight sides. Beyond this, Lincoln City’s victory against Brighton, Oxford’s hammering of Newcastle and Sutton United’s triumph over Leeds were the three further standouts in Round Four this year. Despite this, the ‘bigger’ teams in each instance fielded weaker sides whether as a means of squad rotation in order to freshen things up or to give key players a rest for upcoming fixtures. Some are arguing that Leeds manager Garry Monk’s squad selection was a protest towards the club’s hierarchy to prove that squad depth needed strengthening for a sustained promotion push. Regardless of the reason, many big sides, instead of perceiving the FA Cup as an opportunity to gain some silverware, prioritise league fixtures over the famous competition.

    There is always an element of frustration when an all Premier League tie that is frequently available on Sky, BT or Match of the Day is shown live over a match involving a non-league club. The FA Cup is all about the David vs. Goliath ties and the real magic of the FA Cup can be lost if the wrong games are broadcast. So far, this year’s competition has generally broadcast the right calibre of games. Here’s hoping that Sutton United vs. Arsenal gets the nod as the major tie in Round Five.

    Surely Sutton's Cup run is going to be worth a slot on the BBC?
    One of the main attractions of the FA Cup is that it’s a level playing field. League form and stature can go out of the window but there is always something exciting about a big final between two of the real heavyweights. The last time that this really took place was when runners up Chelsea defeated champions Manchester United in 2007, the first final to be held at the new Wembley. It has become a noticeable occurrence for the top teams to field weaker sides in order to prioritise league fixtures or European commitments. It is a drastic proposition, but if a Champions League place was up for grabs for the winner, would the top teams potentially take the competition a little more seriously? Another suggestion is to host the semi-final at a neutral venue that isn’t Wembley. The incentive to get to the final would be increased by the prospect of playing at the home of English Football being even more difficult to achieve.

    Didier Drogba celebrates after his extra time winner in 2007

    For the Premier League as a whole, league position has become everything. The new lucrative Television rights deal means that, for many sides, the absolute necessity is to simply remain in the league. Some teams of late seem to lack the ambition to really kick on in the FA Cup, sometimes ruining the spectacle of a cup tie. There is always an inherent risk for a lower Premier League side of sacrificing their place in the league by reaching the latter stages of the cup. Take Wigan Athletic in 2013 as an example. Had they been knocked out in earlier rounds, they could have focused solely on remaining in the division and, in the long run, receiving the monetary gains of the new Television deal announced in 2016. Falling into the Championship is a major risk for many sides if they do not have major financial clout. Wigan fell afoul of this, as have the likes of once established top flight sides such as Blackburn Rovers, Charlton Athletic, Bolton Wanderers and Fulham.

    Wigan's celebrations were short-lived after relegation was confirmed 3 days later

    Despite the risk backfiring, Wigan fans would hardly have remembered another “great escape” and 3rd round exit in the same way that they must remember their first major honour in 2013. For those outside the top five, the FA Cup can still produce magical moments that will be hard to surpass. Of the twenty sides in the Premier League at the moment, twelve have gone twenty years or longer without a major honour to their names. Surely fans of these sides must be itching for a sustained FA Cup run and a day out at Wembley? From the club’s perspective as well, there have been several examples in the past few years of a team’s poor league form being masked by reaching the latter stages of a cup competition. The FA Cup can divert fans and board members' attentions from poor form and may well save several managers from the sack. Alan Pardew’s Crystal Palace in 2016, Tim Sherwood’s Aston Villa in 2015 and Roberto Martinez’ Wigan in 2013 all come to mind here. None finished above sixteenth place (admittedly, Sherwood took over in February) and Wigan were relegated. Maybe with an early exit these sides would have achieved more respectable finishes. However, these examples do emphasise that the magic of the FA Cup is still alive and kicking. There’s nothing like a good cup run to forget the rigours of the Premier League every now and then. Despite its drawbacks of late, the FA Cup never fails to captivate the English footballing community. Based on some of the shocks so far, long may that continue!

    George Kelsey
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    Item Reviewed: The FA Cup: Distraction or Opportunity? Rating: 5 Reviewed By: George Kelsey
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