English football traditions are being vanquished and for what?

English football traditions are being vanquished and for what?
Arsenal captain Tony Adams lifts the trophy as Arsenal win the 1998 FA Cu - Getty Images/Ben Radford

A total of 732 clubs entered this season’s FA Cup, from Glossop North End to Great Wakering Rovers, Saltash United to Shepshed Dynamo. But in the end, the fate of all is decided by just 20. Or, to be more accurate, four: the four Premier League titans poised to qualify for next season’s engorged Champions League group phase, and who now regard the world’s oldest cup competition as such a trivial distraction that even the final stands to lose its status, from next season, as the last game in the domestic calendar.

It is at this point that you ask whether football understands the price of everything and the value of nothing. The poor, neglected FA Cup has suffered so many indignities over the past 25 years, from Manchester United’s decision to swerve it altogether for the 2000 Fifa Club World Championship to the soulless move to hold both semi-finals at Wembley just to help recoup the cost of the stadium’s rebuild. Now that the latest revamp mandates the wholesale scrapping of replays, it resembles more of a ravaged husk than ever.

With its heritage already disfigured by the plans to move it behind a paywall on TNT Sports from the 2025-26 campaign, the death knell for the replay feels like the final insult. Replays might be treated by the top clubs as a ghastly inconvenience, but they represent a fundamental component of the FA Cup’s fabric. Take them away and you are left without Ryan Giggs’ iconic wonder-strike in 1999 against Arsenal, and Manchester City’s staggeringly improbable comeback five years later to beat Tottenham 4-3. There is no longer room for Ronnie Radford’s glorious 35-yarder, which propelled Hereford to their triumph over Newcastle in 1972. Arguably, there is not even space for the career of John Motson, who first forged his reputation with his commentary on Radford’s goal.

Some vital financial considerations arise here, too. FA Cup history is littered with tales of clubs whose very survival has been predicated on earning a replay, either at a ramshackle outpost or at one of the game’s gleaming citadels. Football has sought to assuage these concerns by promising an extra £33 million for the grassroots, but you wonder how such a figure has been calculated. What exact monetary value can be attached, for example, to Exeter’s achievement against Manchester United in 2005? By battling to a goalless draw at Old Trafford, they were able not only to take Wayne Rooney et al back to St James’ Park but to collect such a windfall that they clawed themselves out of administration.

English football traditions are being vanquished and for what?
English football traditions are being vanquished and for what?

The hard-hearted interpretation is that football is only losing four games of a grossly bloated schedule. Who at the summit will possibly mourn the mothballing of first-round replays? Well, Cray Valley Paper Mills certainly will. Last November, the Eltham side secured a south-east London derby for the ages against Charlton Athletic of League One. And by forcing a replay that was broadcast live on BBC, they guaranteed a funding lifeline to last them years.

What truly sticks in the craw is that football takes priceless memories away from the little people while accommodating hollow pre-season friendlies for the big boys. How does Manchester City versus Chelsea in Columbus, Ohio grab you this summer? Or Arsenal against Liverpool in Philadelphia? Why are these glorified shirt-selling exercises held as sacrosanct while the essence of the FA Cup is stripped away piece by piece?

And as for the insistence by Mark Bullingham, the Football Association’s chief executive, that the Cup’s magic will be “protected and enhanced” by the changes? It is a risible claim. On the contrary, they have sabotaged the very spectacles of which many fans would spend their lives dreaming. The argument is that the FA’s hands were tied by Uefa’s implacable commitment to Champions League expansion. But what a sad indictment this is of where the sport’s priorities truly lie.

Under the revised structure, the FA Cup final will lose its lustre as the traditional English curtain-call. Instead it will be rebranded as the amuse-bouche for the final round of Premier League fixtures next May. There is a creeping sense that the entire architecture of the English game is being warped, with the needs of the many negated in an effort to satisfy the interests of the few. At times like this, it is tempting to consider whether the eruption of idealistic outrage at a European Super League achieved anything. For when you look at how cravenly football is sullying its crown jewels to make way for a super-sized Champions League, you realise that a version of that dreaded reality is already here.

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