If the FA Cup doesn’t matter then why do top clubs always win?

Even with big clubs fielding weakened sides it is rare for an underdog to go all the way

In youth development football they talk about “the best against the best,” being the way forward. These days, the people who run the FA Cup seem to like things much the same way and this may be a landmark year for them.

In the years since Wimbledon scored their celebrated defeat of Liverpool at the old Wembley, the teams currently occupying the top six spots in the English league have won the competition 25 of 28 times with only Wigan, Portsmouth and the team currently lying seventh, Everton, breaking the stranglehold.

Still, there hasn’t been a season in that time when the two semi-finals were contested by what proved to be the top flight’s top four. If Liverpool continue their recent slide, though, and Arsenal, currently five points behind them with two games in hand, can make it into that elite group for the 21st straight season then that should be put right during the next few months.

In the meantime, there is more consolation for Arsene Wenger who suggested with apparent satisfaction that his players had recovered their confidence as they beat non-league Lincoln City slightly senseless on Saturday: he and his team are currently punching one place above their weight in England's second most important competition.


Notionally, any prospect that this year’s cup might have produced one of those stories that warm the hardest of hearts died at the weekend when both Millwall and Lincoln were emphatically ejected by North London’s big two.

In reality, though, the more powerful clubs and English FA have been colluding to strip the competition of all that was appealing about it for years with the decisions to field dramatically weakened sides, abandon multiple replays (there would not have been even one had a game been drawn at the weekend, just extra-time then penalties for, say, Lincoln at the Emirates) and stage all of the semi-finals at Wembley all helping to erode away at what had been an appealing tradition.

For the association, retaining the interest of the biggest clubs in the age of the Premier and Champions Leagues meant generating more money, much more of it but in their attempt to meet these demands the organisers made lucrative but costly mistakes like the ITV/Setanta deal of 2007.

These days the competition is back on the BBC (with, of course, the inevitable subscription channel partner), whose history with it dates all the way back to 1938 when, after tennis from the All England club and the university boat race, the corporation made the Wembley final the third major sporting event it would ever broadcast. Their pride in the historical relationship is evident even if the initial fervour after winning the rights back has cooled a little but there is only so much they can do.

Having effectively been obliged at one stage a few weeks back to show Manchester United against Wigan when they wanted to screen Lincoln versus Ipswich, the Beeb must have been rather pleased last night to have a quarter final (no longer the sixth round for some reason) encounter between two of the Premier League's most followed sides. With Jose Mourinho managing the visitors against his old club and the two managers having bickered on the sideline when their sides met a few months back in the league, the game was nicely set up and certainly produced its talking points. Let's be clear, though; there was about as much romance about it all as you might expect on the farm when the AI comes calling.

Perhaps part of the problem here is that for all the talk of the competition having lost its allure, it actually still matters a little too much to the big sides. The money is far from huge by their standards – when Arsenal won it in 2013/14 the total income involved was about £4.2 million, less than two per cent of revenues for that year, while the £2.5 million (including the guts of a million for their share of Saturday’s gate) that Lincoln will pocket for their efforts this season this year is more than the club would normally turn over in a year.

Arsenal, though, used the game to give a lesser team a hammering after getting one themselves from a better side while Chelsea had fielded sides Antonio Conte reckoned were good enough to be beat the likes of Brentford and Wolves. In the game against United, both sides played their first choice goalkeepers for the first time in the competition this season and the hosts made eight changes from the fifth round win over Wolves with their previous sprinkling of young, home produced players watching from the sidelines this time.

For three of the coaches at the four surviving clubs, the competition is an insurance policy with a cup success, as Wenger well knows, helping to divert attention from shortcomings on other, more important fronts while for Conte a double would further enhance a great first season although the cup by itself at this stage would do far less for him than his rivals in the unlikely instance that the league is blown.

The coaches, in any case, are not the only ones to whom the thing still matters. Fans have an attachment to the cup while billionaire owners get a bit of kudos for their cash and the people who work for them get that two percent of revenue which is, of course, a few million more than the alternative. For the smaller sides that fall along the way, just getting the TV cameras into the ground can transform a season because of the bonus payments they bring. At the weekend, for instance, the four winners got £360,000 apiece in prize money but all eight teams got £247,000 for being shown on live TV.

In the earlier rounds, the cameras bring by far the larger cheque, which is nice, of course, for the likes of United whose game against Wigan was their 56th straight cup game to be screened live. In all, the total prize fund is listed by the FA as £25 million, a fraction of total broadcast and sponsorship income.

There is talk of it rising significantly from 2018/19 when the competition’s next three year revenue cycle begin but TV is likely still to carry a large portion of the overall payments, something that will keep the big six and lesser Premier League sides sweet.

Lincoln, like Dundalk in the wake of their European adventure last season, will not be left complaining, of course, but what they are getting are crumbs from the game’s top table. Wins for the underdogs would not mean nearly so much if the richest sides were obliged to play reserve teams or absent entirely but as things stand the gap now between rich and poor makes a joke of the old line that “anything can happen” because it’s the cup.

There are, inevitably, no easy answers. It is strange somehow that recent finals have included the likes of Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, Hull City, Millwall, Middlesbrough and Cardiff City but sad that there almost always seems to be a Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal or Spurs there to be beat them.

This year, those four will simply sort it out amongst themselves. And it will matter to them, just not that much. Why it should still mean anything really to the rest of us, is another matter entirely.