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27th Jan 2020

Downplaying the Cup? Try telling Shrewsbury there shouldn’t be replays

Kyle Picknell

You might have seen the adverts

The Wallace & Gromit style claymations and regular football fans reimagined as a pair of dogs, or birds, waxing lyrical about the magic of the Cup. “The FA Cup will never be finished, mate” goes one. “There’s something special about a cup tie under the lights,” proclaims the other. Well, apparently there isn’t. At least not according to Pep Guardiola, who last week suggested the League Cup be scrapped on the basis of “less games, less competitions, less teams, more quality, less quantity.” Shocking. He should really know when to use fewer by now.

On Friday he doubled down, suggesting the FA Cup should be rid of replays, the kind of fixtures that provide smaller clubs with tangible, vital improvements to their facilities, anything from new video analysis equipment to pitch drainage solutions. A club like Shrewsbury Town, for instance, who came from 2-0 down to draw with Liverpool in thrilling fashion, earning a replay at Anfield. There isn’t just the obvious monetary benefit, too: it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for many of Shrewsbury’s players and staff. It’s a pinch-yourself moment for the fans that follow the team to League One stadia up and down the country.

Well, it would have been. Jürgen Klopp won’t be there, unfortunately. Neither will the Liverpool first team due to a belated winter break scheduled for its players, some of whom have already played over 30 games this season. Reminder: it’s still January. The season officially ends in May with the Champions League final, but the Euro 2020 finals fall immediately after that.

It is difficult to criticise Klopp’s ruthlessly pragmatic approach to the domestic competitions this season given the runaway juggernaut his starting eleven has become in the Premier League. “We have to respect the players’ welfare. They need a rest. They need a mental rest, a physical rest, and that’s what the winter break is all about,” he explained.

This is where we are at now. The hectic football calendar means managers are forced to prioritise more ‘reputable’ competitions over others. Klopp is now a bouncer with a very scrupulous door policy. Sorry, the FA Cup. Not tonight. You’re not coming in here dressed like that, Carabao Cup. Let me see that ID, FIFA Club World Cup. I’ll let you off tonight but next time no trainers. I mean it.

It goes without saying that Liverpool’s top priority should be winning their first Premier League title in 20 years. They will do everything they can to defend their Champions League crown alongside that. The magnitude of those two competitions, ahead in terms of both prestige and money, which in football usually equate to the same thing anyway, means everything else falls by the wayside.

In one of the other FA Cup ties on Sunday, a strong Manchester City side cruised past Fulham 4-0. Afterwards, Guardiola bemoaned the crowd, 39,223, and questioned why more supporters weren’t in attendance to cheer his team onto Wembley. It appears the former Barcelona man wants to have his cake and eat it too. The Cup is important, our fans should support us in the Cup; the Cup is too much, we should have fewer games in the Cup. Comments like his are part of the wider slow erosion that threatens to wash away the silver finish on both of English football’s domestic trophies.

Only two of the last 24 FA Cup trophies have been lifted by teams outside of what we now consider the established ‘top six’ in English football – Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham. The EFL is more varied, with Birmingham City and Swansea City both winning the competition in the last decade, but is still dominated by the usual suspects. Guardiola, who wants the competition abolished remember, has won the last two finals. He looks set to make another trip to Wembley for it this year. City have won it four times in the last six years.

This year’s edition of France’s equivalent to the EFL Cup, the Coupe de la Ligue, will be its last in a bid to reduce the cluttered football schedule. It is a trophy that has only been in existence since 1994, however, and pales in historical significance to the League Cup, which has been running for 60 years. To follow suit and erase the competition seems like the quickest and easiest course of action, rather than the best. Why should that be the sacrificial lamb at the altar of the autocrats?

There is no easy solution to all this. The disparity will grow. Games like Aston Villa’s 5-0 victory over what was essentially Liverpool’s under-23 side will slowly cease to be an anomaly and morph into the norm. That should be worrying for all football fans. That match felt perverse, against the point of competitive sport. As vapid as any corporate, pre-season tournament played in desperate humidity for a car manufacturer.

Football has become muddled. It is now eating its own tail. The FA Cup celebrates its 150th-anniversary next year, the oldest national football competition in the world. It is abhorrent that the best team in England might not prioritise winning it because of a petrodollar charade in the middle of the season. You can’t suddenly force fans to care about some competitions more than others but make no mistake, the Club World Cup is bottom of everyone’s list. If the football powers that be really cared about the fixture congestion, and the players, and the supporters, that would be the first thing chalked off the list. Its continued existence, and scheduled expansion, proves that isn’t the case.

Germany’s League Cup, the Ligapokal, ended in 2007. Span’s Copa de la Liga lasted only four years, between 1982 and 1986. Italy has never had more than one domestic cup competition. If the Carabao Cup does go, it will be mourned by those at the bottom of the Football League pyramid and forgotten about entirely by those at the top. It might halfheartedly persist, a dinosaur clinging on after the asteroid as football rumbles towards its brave new world of more games, more competitions, more teams. Less quality and more quantity.

The cumulative effect of this unconscionable disparity of wealth remains the same: it robs the teams at the bottom from ever catching those at the top. Even magic won’t fix that.