By Kevin Roberts, Editorial Director, Sport Business Group
Last weekend provided some extraordinary scenes in football stadiums across England. The fourth round of the FA Cup saw Premier League Norwich City beaten at home by non-league Luton, the once mighty Liverpool humbled by Oldham Athletic, Queens Park Rangers beaten at home by third tier MK Dons and both Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa falling to lower league opposition.
The sequence of shock results led former Scotland and Liverpool star and current BBC soccer pundit Alan Hansen to conclude in a newspaper column that it had given the ageing competition a shot in the arm.
And you know what? He might be right. But the shot is likely to have only temporary impact because the 140 year-old competition may still be on course to death by neglect of the people who run football.
Of course there is always something about giant killing which is endlessly entertaining for those who don’t either play for or support the fallen Goliaths. But the Cup can’t continue to run on shocks alone, particularly when one considers how today’s upsets differ from those of days gone by.
In 1971, Colchester United, a tiny club in the fourth tier, beat Leeds United - then perhaps the most feared side in the land - 3-2 in the FA Cup. It was a day of pure magic, not only for Colchester but for the Cup itself. It cemented the folklore laid own over the years and whetted the appetite for the next round.
The following year the magic returned as non-league Hereford United beat first division Newcastle 2-1 in a replay at their own ground having grafted for a draw in the original game at St James Park. It was a sensational display which similarly caught the imagination off an entire nation.
The difference between then and now is that both Colchester and Hereford defeated the best teams their illustrious rivals could field. Today that’s not the case as managers look to blood young players or rotate their engorged squads to keep fringe players happy.
And the reason they do it is that they are no longer deeply concerned about the FA Cup.
The reality of modern football is that two things count. Being in the Premier League and being in the Champions league. As either the fight for survival or a top four finish(and CL qualification) absorbs most of the 20 premier League clubs, the Famous Old Cup has become an afterthought – no matter how much its neglect is denied.
Even clubs in the Championship with realistic ambitions of promotion to the promised land of the EPL have fielded fringe squads in recent years - the prize, the risk is simply not seen as worth it.
Maybe this is the price of progress, the inevitable result of the pursuit of big money in a sport which is largely determined by how much you have in the bank.
But the people who run football surely have the chance to reverse the trend. That could start simply by regulation that stipulates clubs must play their strongest available teams
in Cup Ties, lending shock results a credibility which the current round lacked.
Second the Cup Final itself should be given the space to thrive as a major national event. Last year it was played on the evening of a day in which other Premier League games had competed for attention and headlines.
If these steps aren’t taken the FA Cup will remain a declining brand, less attractive to sponsors and, probably, to a worldwide TV audience. In fact, perhaps the sponsors and broadcasters who pay the big bucks for rights might do us all a favour by flexing their muscles and insisting that the credibility of the competition is addressed before they sign the next deals.