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Ken Early: Romance of the Cup a myth only TV companies believe in

Premier League has become so rich that domestic cups have shrunk into irrelevance

Wycombe Wanderers’ Garry Thompson celebrates scoring his side’s third goal against Tottenham at White Hart Lane in the FA Cup fourth round. Photograph: Darren Staples/Reuters

Earlier on Saturday, Liverpool had been knocked out of the FA Cup at home to Wolves. Now Tottenham were 2-0 down at half-time to League Two’s Wycombe Wanderers. In the BT Sport studio, Robbie Savage was angry and confused.

“Why don’t these big clubs want to win the FA Cup?” he asked.

Savage couldn’t understand why managers like Jürgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino would jeopardise their Cup chances by picking second-string teams for home ties against lower-division opposition.

Is it really that hard to understand?

On Tuesday night Liverpool play Chelsea at Anfield, while Tottenham are away at Sunderland. Anyone who played 90 minutes in the Cup on Saturday would not be fully recovered in time to play on Tuesday.

So Klopp and Pochettino decided they had to prioritise. They both rested key players and picked sides they hoped would be good enough to beat the lower-division teams. Pochettino got away with it; Klopp did not, but it was a risk he felt he had to accept.

It’s not that Klopp and Pochettino don’t want to win the FA Cup. They would rather win it than not win it. It’s just that they understand it is not an important competition and that winning it does not count for anything. If it did, then Manchester United would not have sacked Louis van Gaal within hours of him winning it last season.

Everyone knows that when pundits talk about the FA Cup using words like “romance” and “magic” they are talking nonsense. The fans know it doesn’t matter, which is why FA Cup attendances have been declining since the late 1990s. Sunderland average more than 40,000 for league matches at the Stadium of Light, but only 17,000 turned up to watch them play Burnley in the FA Cup third round.

Biggest draw in football

You could argue that Burnley perhaps aren’t the biggest draw in football, but even the prospect of watching some of the best players in the world can’t get people excited about the FA Cup. Crystal Palace get crowds of 25,000 on average for league matches at Selhurst Park, but only 13,000 turned up to watch them lose to Manchester City in the Cup on Saturday.

The reason why this has happened is obvious and well understood by everybody who is interested in football. The Premier League has become so rich that the domestic cup competitions have shrunk into irrelevance. They are now little more than an unwelcome drain on the energies of all the Premier League teams involved.

After Liverpool lost to Southampton in the League Cup semi-final last week, a young Liverpool fan was interviewed outside Anfield by YouTube channel The Redmen TV.

This was a cut above the usual post-match angry-fan-interview. It was an elegy for a vanished age, before the stadiums of big English clubs were taken over by corporate hospitality catering to companies and tourists and day-trippers, when the game belonged to working-class fans from the local area with a real attachment to the club and the city, the sort of people who stood on the terraces and roared their team on, who would never leave a few minutes before the whistle to be first to the bar or to beat the traffic on the way home.“It’s not a gourmet thing, it’s not a day out, it’s you supporting your club cause your club is your club, it’s your team, it’s your city, it’s everything,” he said. “And I just feel like it’s losing that with Liverpool, and it’s been losing that the last seven years. I worry about the future cos I think are we gonna become a team where people just think ‘let’s go to Liverpool for a day out’ and you won’t hear a Scouse voice in the terraces. You just won’t hear anything. I think it’s part of a wider problem.”

Struck a chord

The clip went viral; these sentiments had plainly struck a chord with a huge audience of fans. But the “wider problem” to which he referred is simply the bargain with commercialism that has made the English league the richest in the world.

Clubs like Liverpool still pretend to be “family” institutions focused on the needs of their local community, while in reality being globally-oriented enterprises focused on revenue maximisation. If you want to recruit managers and players from the world talent pool – if you want to see Klopp in the dugout and Coutinho on the pitch – then you’ve also got to recruit followers and seek profits all around the world. English football sells everything about itself and those traditions that defy monetisation are discarded or sink into decline. It’s a choice that English football made long ago.

Pundits will still get passionate about the ancient tradition of the FA Cup, especially when they are working for TV stations that have paid large sums of money for the rights to screen Cup matches. For younger generations of fans, the tradition most strongly associated with the Cup is the tradition of people complaining that nobody takes the Cup seriously any more. The tradition of complaint seems to gather strength with every year, as the Cup continues its slide into irrelevance.

Why do people who ought to know better keep pretending that they believe this competition still matters? Only because of nostalgia. They remember that when they were children it mattered, and they wish it could be that way still. Nothing ever stays the same, but that never stops us wishing it would.