Beating one of the big boys in the cup (especially the FA Cup) used to be one of the highlights of supporting a lower league team. But then the big boys decided that boring old domestic cups weren’t worth bothering with any more and so another important bit of football died.
Can you imagine how long the Orient fan in the office full of Arsenal supporters had been waiting for Monday morning to come along? Not so long ago the equation would have been simple: Team x > Team y = bragging rights duly awarded. Of course, since managers stopped the quaint, century-long tradition of playing their strongest team in every match things are less clear cut. So now the Orient fan who rejoices in his team’s result is simply met with a condescending smile: “sorry old chap, that wasn’t Arsenal you drew with, it was Arsenal reserves.” Few organisations do hegemony better than the Premier League. Not content with insulating their fattest cats against the horrors of a level playing field in the league, now they are even providing them with built-in excuses against the humiliation of an authentic giant killing.
The hypocrisy is breathtaking. Wolves and Blackpool are fined for fielding weakened teams to protect the “integrity” of the Premier League, yet the integrity of the original knockout competition means nothing. Typically, the FA simply look on impotently as their blue riband competition is devalued to an extent that would have been unimaginable even a decade ago. There have been countless column inches devoted to “reinvigorating” the FA Cup. This is code for getting teams to take it seriously again - and this isn’t just a problem that afflicts the top division, plenty of Championship teams put out weakened teams too these days.
The solution is straightforward - teams need to be punished if they field shadow teams in cup competitions. There’s even a precedent for this. In 2006 the Football League announced that teams participating in the Football League Trophy (now the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy) would have to field at least six players who had played the most games in their respective positions during the current campaign. Teams who fail to comply with this are fined. Clearly, financial penalties wouldn’t make a difference to certain clubs so I would tweak this slightly and dock teams league points. Nothing too harsh, three points per offence should do it. I guarantee that this would focus managers’ minds. Instead we will doubtless get more “focus groups” and “working parties” while the Cup hobbles on as a pale imitation of its former self.
And so, in thirty years’ time, the Lidl FA Cup’s highlights package (2AM, Channel 5) will open with Ronnie Radford, Mickey Thomas and…a chap from Team x beating three Belgian teenagers in Manchester United shirts before scoring past…who’s that again?
Ah, the romance of the FA Cup.