Football Betting

Ben Gray: The FA Cup may not be what it once was, but this weekend’s ties emphasised the importance of the competition

This is not a eulogy for a once great competition, nor is it a rant about how the FA Cup has ‘lost it’s magic’, more an appreciation of the tournament, celebrating it’s importance in the modern world, but also looking at how it can be made better.

Sure, the FA Cup is not perfect, nor is it the biggest and best sporting contest on show anywhere on earth, but it doesn’t need to be.

When it comes to the Premier League, the Champions League, the World Cup, the expanded Club World Cup and the proposed European Super League, everything claims to be the best in the world.

The best teams, the best players, the best entertainment, or such hogwash one might find in a press release or slickly put together video.

The FA Cup does none of those things, prioritising it’s storied history and tradition, and this is fine, it’s okay that a hierarchy exists when it comes to football tournaments.

But for some, the FA Cup is the most important thing, and that is why it is worth protecting.

On Saturday, Maidstone United beat Stevenage 1-0, becoming the first National League South side to reach the fourth round since Havant & Waterlooville in 2008; they faced Liverpool at Anfield 16 years ago, with George Elokobi’s team hoping for something similar in tonight’s draw.

That was the Stones’ sixth FA Cup victory of the season, if a Premier League side enjoyed that many they’d be hoisting aloft the trophy, earning the non-league club £231,375 in prize money alone, before you even take into account other revenue streams: ticket sales, hospitality, sponsorship and so on.

You may have noticed that broadcasting was not in that list and that’s because, aside from the 4,024 supporters inside Gallagher Stadium on Saturday, and a few onlookers in trees, no one in the UK could legally watch Maidstone’s historic victory.

The tie was available to watch in over 70 countries and territories worldwide, but not the country it was actually being played in.

Instead, the rights holders went for a few all-Premier League ties, while it’s extremely rare for any match not featuring a top-tier team to be broadcast.

BBC and ITV want ratings, which is fair enough, and it’s great the FA Cup is free-to-air, but at least give viewers the option.

Maidstone vs Stevenage was moved to 12:30, for international broadcast reasons, so it’s already not infringing on the 3pm blackout rule, so there’s no reason why the stream US-based viewers of ESPN+ could watch cannot be made available on ITVX or BBC iPlayer.

Improving the broadcasting situation, even if games are online only, is a very easy way of bring to the forefront the giant killing storylines that make the FA Cup what it is.

To replay or not to replay?

The other major off-field talking point coming out of this weekend’s games is the issue of replays.

Back in the day, teams would just play an infinite amount of replays until a winner was determined.

In 1980, Arsenal and Liverpool’s semi-final took four matches before the Gunners prevailed, while Alvechurch and Oxford City hold the record, clashing six times in a fourth qualifying round tie in 1971, before the Church ultimately progressed.

While multi-replays have not been a thing since the early-90s, even one extra match is too many for some, with Thomas Frank among those complaining over the weekend about an issue that divides opinion.

There are already no replays from the fifth round onwards, these scrapped in 2019, and this could well be the last we see of them in rounds three and four.

From next season, the expanded UEFA competitions will see both Champions League and Europa League matches taking place in the week’s commencing 20 and 27 January.

This has already seen the EFL Cup semi-finals reduced to one-legged ties, while it is not yet known how this will impact the FA Cup calendar.

However, at least 87.5% of teams who feature in the FA Cup third round do not compete in Europe, so this is yet again an example of football taking care of the few at the top and not the rest.

When it comes to the future or replays, they must remain in early rounds, and here’s an example as to why.

Two years ago, sixth-tier Kidderminster Harriers were beating West Ham United 1-0, on course for a famous victory at Aggborough, only for Declan Rice to snatch a 91st minute equaliser.

Kiddy’s consolation prize in this scenario should’ve been a money-spinning, televised replay in East London whereas, instead, extra time was played, in which Jarrod Bowen won it against the exhausted non-leaguers.

Simultaneously, third-tier Plymouth Argyle held, at the time, reigning European champions Chelsea to a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge but, rather than getting to bring the Blues back to Home Park, the Pilgrims were dumped out by Marcos Alonso in extra time.

So, here’s the solution we’re proposing:

If it’s an all-Premier League tie, straight to penalties.

I attended both Crystal Palace vs Everton on Thursday and then Brentford vs Wolves the following evening, both of which ended all-square, and nobody involved wanted a replay.

The Thursday night extravaganza at Selhurst Park in particular was one of the worst football matches ever played anywhere, genuinely no hyperbole about that statement, but a penalty shootout, no extra time, at the end of the night would’ve at least given all of us in attendance something to remember.

All Carabao Cup ties, aside from the final, go straight to penalties, and the FA Cup should largely follow suit for all-Premier League affairs, or if both clubs involved agree beforehand, as we suspect would’ve been the case, for example, ahead of Hull City vs Birmingham City on Saturday.

However, when it’s a big side against a smaller club, replays must remain.

Blackpool, Bolton and Bristol City all earned draws at Premier League grounds on Sunday, so will get the chance to dump out top-flight opposition at their own stadium next Tuesday/Wednesday.

If Nuno Espírito Santo is so concerned about fixture congestion, well perhaps his Nottingham Forest side should’ve just beaten a Tangerines team who’ve lost four of their last six, sat eighth in EFL League One.

The trio of teams listed a hardly minnows, but for anyone deprived of Premier League riches, and extra game in front of a big crowd, possibly even on the television, is a huge boost to the coffers.

As alluded to, I have no sympathy for Premier League managers complaining about replays after their team has failed to beat a side worth about as much as their reserve right-back.

It’s always worth remembering that there is life outside the Premier League and Champions League; 732 clubs entered this season’s FA Cup and, for the overwhelming majority, this tournament is the be-all and end-all.

Of course, the FA Cup isn’t what it once was, but it is still vitally important to the heritage and lifeblood of the English football pyramid, something that’s certainly worth protecting and cherishing.

Ben Gray

Ben Gray

Arsenal fan – follow them over land and sea (and Leicester); sofa Celtic supporter; a bit of a football '"encyclopedia".