Does the FA Cup matter?

Once upon a time, long, long ago, when the majority of the Capital Canaries were still wearing short trousers, there were two competitions that mattered in English football.

The first was the Football League title. The 92 League clubs were divided into four divisions. The top 22 clubs at the pinnacle formed the First Division. The team that finished top of this division at the end of a long hard season revelled in the accolade of being crowned Football League champions, and received a trophy for so doing. The club was universally respected for this achievement. Each player received a medal, and as an afterthought the club received the added bonus of qualifying to represent England in the European Cup competition in the season following their triumph.

The second competition that mattered was the FA Cup. Whilst a modicum of luck and a great deal of consistency over a period of nine months or so were required to win the League, a slice of good luck and a kind draw over a short span of six games were all that were required to win the FA Cup. The FA Cup, being a sudden death competition, was more glamorous and exciting, less predictable, and more headline grabbing than the League.

A Cup Final appearance meant an unforgettable day out at wonderful Wembley. Most fans prized FA Cup tickets more than League ones. The winners of the FA Cup received more television exposure, and often had the chance to shake hands with royalty. Winning the Cup also allowed them to enter the European Cup Winners Cup.

In those days there was no Premiership, no Sky Television, and very little televised football. All of that changed during the 1970s and 1980s. With the rise to prominence of the League Cup, and the arrival of first one and then a whole bench of substitutes, the advent of the Premiership, and the deals with the television companies, there began a glut of televised football and an increase in the number of matches played.

The concept of a “First 11” had to be abandoned. Our leading clubs were forced to introduce a squad system so that they were able to rest and rotate their players before they burned out from injury or fatigue. And as the second, third and fourth placed teams were allowed to enter the European Cup (paradoxically renamed the Champions League even though not all teams taking part were champions!), the kudos of playing televised matches in Europe became less of an honour and more of a financial necessity for our so called big clubs.

The Cup Winners Cup withered and was eventually abolished. The FA Cup was devalued and became at best an irrelevance and at worst an unwelcome distraction from the real business of ensuring (if your team was lower down in the League) that your club was not relegated or (if you were higher up) that you qualified for the European gravy train.

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Personally I regret the decline in value attached to the F A Cup. It provided excitement, shock results, and sudden death dramas. It offered the smaller clubs the chance to do well. The same big four teams seemed to monopolise the Premiership title, but many other teams enjoyed memorable Cup runs and successes. And as a Norwich fan, I revelled in the great Cup runs of 1959 and 1989, as well as the defeat of Manchester United at Old Trafford in 1967.

Cup runs generate money for the club as well as interest among the supporters. I suppose our management would say that it is more important in the long run for the club to secure promotion to the Premier League rather than have a good run in the Cup. Maybe that is why so many of our big guns were rested last week against Leyton Orient.

But I still remember the great days of 1959, and can only lament that we have only progressed beyond the third round of the Cup three times in the last 26 years. Having said that, well played the Os, good luck in the rest of the FA Cup competition and let us at Norwich concentrate all our efforts on the remaining League programme!

Talking of the Norwich management, I hope we can now draw a line under the “Lambert for Burnley” scare. PL has made clear that he is happy to stay at Carrow Road, and Burnley are left with egg on their faces after being rebuffed by Norwich, Watford, PL, and Malky. I am confident we can survive the ”Lambert for Wet Spam” stories which are beginning to surface in the “Sun” too.

It would be quite wrong of me to close this column without paying glowing tribute to the excellent work done over the last two years by Special Agent Keane at the funny farm down the road. The facts speak for themselves. In his short tenure at Poorman Road Keane spent �8 million on new players. In his first season the unmentionables failed to win any of their first 14 games, and eventually finished in 15th place in the division. This season they are in 19th place, have lost seven out of their last nine league games, and were eviscerated 7-0 by Chelsea in the Cup. Oh and just in case any of you have forgotten, they lost 4-1 at Carrow Road a few weeks ago. Well done Keano!

Some say that the contenders to take over the poisoned chalice included Ronald MacDonald and Lembit Opik, but the job eventually went to another clown who took Derby down from the Premier League and when he left the Rams they had sunk to 18th place in the Championship.

At this point someone is going to point out that the Binners team starring English football’s brightest young striker beat Arsenal earlier in the week before a crowd of nearly 30,000. True. But let us wait for the result in the second leg at the Emirates before drawing any premature conclusions. How many of the crowd were Suffolk based Gooners? Cesc Fabregas summed up the quality of Town’s football in one succinct word. “Rugby”. And exactly how many goals has Connor Wickham scored this season? Precisely zero. Both Adam Drury and Russell Martin have scored more than him and neither of them would claim to be prolific strikers!