Ben Gray: The abolition of FA Cup replays emphasis that football is for the few and not the many

On Thursday morning, the FA confirmed sweeping changes will be made to the FA Cup starting from next season.

The most noteworthy aspect of the press release was the news that replays will be abolished from the first round onwards, which has not gone down very well.

Countless EFL clubs have come out against this, as have the English Football League themselves, that can be found here.

In the EFL’s statement, they confirm that ‘there was no agreement with the EFL nor was there any formal consultation with EFL Clubs as members of the FA and participants in the competition’, essentially suggesting the Premier League went behind their backs.

They go onto say ‘this latest agreement between the Premier League and the FA... is just a further example of how the EFL and its clubs are being marginalised in favour of others further up the pyramid and that only serves to threaten the future of the English game. The EFL today calls on both the Premier League and the FA, as the Governing body, to re-evaluate’.

The FA themselves have been forced to come back with a statement of their own, containing plenty of meaningless buzzwords and hogwash like ‘maintain player welfare’ claiming this decision is under review to ‘ensure that EFL and National League clubs do not lose out’ which doesn’t help does it?

Back in February, the FA were criticised for selling FA Cup rights to paywall channel TNT Sports, starting from season 2025/26, something we wrote about extensively at the time, and this is the latest PR disasterclass for the FA Cup, a competition seemingly intent on destroying itself.

Why are FA Cup replays so important?

This announcement raised the existential question: who is the FA Cup really for?

When it comes to winning the competition, well the answer is a very small group of the world’s wealthiest clubs, given that, since 1995, 25 of the 28 FA Cup winners have been either Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United or Manchester City.

Given that three of those clubs are through to this weekend’s semi-finals, baring not one but two massive upsets from Coventry City, this ratio will increase further.

Congratulations to Portsmouth, Wigan Athletic and Leicester City for being the only clubs who’ve managed to break up this five-way oligopoly since Everton almost three decades ago.

But the competition should not just be about big Premier League sides, with 732 clubs entering this season’s edition, starting in the extra preliminary round all the way back on 5 August last year, with the final set to be the 881st match of the entire tournament.

Replays are such a fundamental part of the competition, allowing smaller clubs to earn an extra money-spinning fixture against a team from a higher division, however high or lower in the pyramid that may be, so taking these away to protect the interest of the rich just does not feel right.

I’ll give you a practical example of why this format change doesn’t work in practice.

Two seasons ago, ‘to avoid possible fixture congestion caused by postponements due to a surge in Covid-19 cases’ replays were scrapped from round three onwards, a precursor of what’s to come.

Back then, sixth-tier Kidderminster Harriers had made a run all the way to the fourth round, an amazing achievement for a National League North club to come through six rounds, before being handed a plum home tie against West Ham, live on BBC1 at a sold-out Aggborough.

Against all odds, Kiddy took a 19th minute lead through Alex Penny, before remaining ahead for so long, until Declan Rice spared the Hammers’ blushes by firing home an injury time equaliser.

Now, under normal circumstances, while this is still a gut-punch, Kidderminster would have earned a replay at the London Stadium, with a capacity of over 60,000, which would not only be an amazing expirence for their supporters but, considering they get 50% of the gate receipts, plus a broadcast fee, this would earn the club another enormous windfall.

Instead, extra time was played and, given that the Irons had brought off the bench Rice, Tomáš Souček, Aaron Cresswell, Craig Dawson and Pablo Fornals, it was only ever going to go one way, with Jarrod Bowen the match-winner.

Put succinctly, before, the carrot of a potential replay, either at a huge stadium away or back on your own turf, meant the lower league side needed either a draw or win to be rewarded, but these chances have now been massively diminished, significantly decreasing the probability of an upset, which is what we all come to see?

Why have FA Cup replays been abolished?

Despite the uproar and outrage in recent days, this was inevitable following the expansion of UEFA competitions.

From next season, all three European competition’s will undergo fundamental format changes, binning off the traditional group phase, replaced by the ‘Swiss system’, with clubs in the Champions League and Europa League playing eight games before the knockout phase begins, up from six.

The two extra UEFA dates, week commencing 20 & 27 January, were more or less when FA Cup third and fourth round replays took place this season, ending those as a possibility.

Along similar lines, there was also talk that the Carabao Cup semi-finals would become single-elimination ties, for similar reasons, but this will not yet be the case, after the Premier League and EFL failed to agree a financial package a few months ago.

Having said all of that, this is still fundamentally wrong, changing the format of an entire competition that features over 700 clubs just because six of them will play extra games in Europe.

The solution I’d propose, and this isn’t an original idea, is that if both clubs involved in a tie don’t want a replay, then it goes straight to penalties.

How often do you hear a commentary say ‘that last thing either manager wants here is a replay’, with the all-Premier League third round fixture between Everton and Crystal Palace this season a perfect example.

In advance of the game, if both clubs agree that they don’t want a replay, then that’s absolutely fine, straight to penalties, and a shootout at Selhurst Park would’ve been most welcome by those of us who attended, and I don’t mean to sound hyperbolic, the worst football match ever played.

However, if would look back to 2020 for example, Shrewsbury Town held Liverpool to a 2-2 draw at the New Meadow, earning a replay at Anfield.

Afterwards, Jürgen Klopp complained the replays are ruining football, going onto name essentially a youth team for the second tie, not even bothering to turn up, leaving then U23s manager Neil Critchley in charge.

I’d argue that this wouldn’t be an issue had the reigning European champions simply beaten the side who would go on to finish 15th in League One, but who am I to say?

Who knows in which direction football is traveling, although an expanded FIFA Club World Cup, Super Leagues and domestic matches being played abroad gives us an indication that it might not be good.

Competitions like the FA Cup are being left behind by capitalism, commercialism and globalisation, with this just another small microcosm example of how the game we all fell in love with is being destroyed by greed.

Ben Gray

Ben Gray

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