After 12 years and 58 games, Manchester United’s televised FA Cup run is over. Their third-round tie with Derby County will not be broadcast live and, finally, those charged with making these selections appear to have caught up with the public mood.
Enthusiasm for this development can easily be misread as anti-Manchester United sentiment. It’s not. Rather, it’s a reaction to a habit seen as fundamental to the FA Cup’s decline. For far too long, television has been free to prioritise the fixtures of the most well-supported sides and, in so doing, has often allowed the competition’s essence to play out in the darkness. The Premier League and the growth of European football may well be the chief agents in the cup’s dilution, but this has also played a significant role. Now, supporters react to these weekends as they do to international breaks, seeing them as irritating interruptions to the league calendar, populated by uncompetitive games featuring a narrow cast of flat-track bullies.
The inconvenient truth is that big clubs draw a television audience on a reflexive basis. While week-to-week fans would likely have ignored Derby’s trip to Old Trafford, many more casual observers would have tuned in – Manchester United are Manchester United and will always resonate in a transcendent way. In that regard, the decision to broadcast their games – irrespective of opponent or story – has always been easy to do. How meek the complaints of a few cup loyalists must sound in relation to the deafening validation of healthy ratings.
So this is a moral argument built around the notion that television companies owe the competition more than they have traditionally been willing to part with. Little can be done to lessen the Premier League’s giant shadow, of course, but infusing the cup with intrigue depends on storytelling and visibility. A League Two side who battle improbably through the rounds are a story. The team of Arsenal reserves who walk past a series of Championship opponents are not. One helps to grow the texture of the tournament, the other is just football for the sake of it.
As much as people sneer at the traditional values of the competition, there is clearly still an appetite for them. The belittling features on semi-professional players and “oh, isn’t this ground hilariously decrepit” vignettes can grate, certainly, but the football is something different and, ultimately, fresh. The contemporary armchair supporter is force-fed a diet of top-level games from half-a-dozen European leagues every weekend for eight months of the year, meaning that anything different carries a clear novelty. To ignore that is to do the game as a whole a disservice.
One of the great tropes of FA Cup football is also the notion that a good run can guarantee financial security. Again, hearing about the last-minute winner which allows a non-league team to build a new changing room or install a digital scoreboard has become cliched over time, but it remains one of the intended functions of the competition. While television selections shouldn’t be needlessly contrary and bigger teams needn’t be ignored, perhaps these decisions should be more informed by the sport’s broader interests. When the chance to shine a national spotlight on a wilderness club exists, it should always be taken.
This is something which needs to be directed from on high. Television companies alone cannot be trusted to make benevolent decisions and so, in spite of a depreciating effect on rights revenue, the Football Association would be well served by creating a set of conditions which police selections. Perhaps, instead of a free choice, the FA could offer batches of preferred games to the BBC or BT Sport? From the quarter-finals onwards, every fixture is guaranteed a place on television and so, on the assumption of their progress through the rounds, the low-hanging Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool fruit would be there to pluck from March onwards.
A lesser measure could even involve force all Premier League sides to play away from home between rounds three and six? At least, under those conditions, that would prevent the non-spectacle of an Anfield or Emirates procession and guarantee a certain contextual difference.
The FA Cup’s recession is always met with a shrugging response. What’s dispiriting, though, is the inaction of those charged with preserving its longevity. The Premier Leauge and the various European competitions may be a more natural draw, but the palms-raised acceptance of that reality is a very self-defeating form of inertia. Relevance depends on modernity, adjusting to the times and tweaking formats to suit them, and yet the cup continues to be voluntarily archaic.
Worse, with regards to broadcasting, it insists on tolerating this deference to the game’s increasing inequality and accepting popularity and commercial appeal as the competition’s sole currency.