The FA Cup holds a prestigious legacy, originating in the 1871/72 season, marking it as one of football’s oldest competitions. Over time it has adapted, becoming a beacon of inclusivity, uniting fans, players and clubs across all levels, creating a unique bond unmatched by any other tournament, often encapsulated in the phrase ‘Magic of the FA Cup’. 

FA Cup.
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For fans, the FA Cup has delivered unforgettable moments, like non-league Hereford‘s stunning 2-1 victory over Newcastle United in 1972, highlighted by Ronnie Radford‘s thunderous strike. It also witnessed Ryan Giggs iconic goal against Arsenal in 1999, enabling his team towards a historic treble win.

However, the beauty of the FA Cup extends beyond lifting the trophy. For many lower league clubs reaching a stage such as the fourth-round is a great achievement, partly due to the money it generates.

This was the case for Cambridge United in 2015. The League Two side ultimately lost against footballing giant Manchester United at Old Trafford 3-0, however, the money generated from TV and gate receipts came to an estimated £1m.

For most clubs in the football pyramid, £1m is life-changing. Yet, all these ‘magical’ moments would never have happened without replays – a feature of the tournament that the FA and Premier League have decided to eradicate.

Changes to ‘strengthen’ the tournament

In an announcement yesterday (18 April) the Premier League and the FA unveiled huge format changes to the FA Cup and changes to the footballing calendar, which it described as ‘strengthening’.

Most notably, the organisations have decided to remove replays from the first round proper,  driven by recent calendar changes due to the expansion of UEFA competitions, tournaments that are only accessible to the top six/seven clubs in the English football pyramid.

Sheffield United Manager, Chris Wilder expressed sentiment widely felt across the English football system in a recent interview: “As always the game is dominated and dictated by the big boys.”

Perhaps most shockingly, Tranmere Rovers and other EFL clubs have revealed that these changes to the format were discussed and made without consulting any team outside of the Premier League.

In a statement, Tranmere Rovers said: “There was no consultation with Football League clubs, National League clubs or grassroots clubs to whom the competition represents not only their best opportunity to create life-long memories for supporters but also a hugely important source of income. We also understand that FA Council members were not consulted about the changes.

“The decision, and the way it was taken, demonstrate a total lack of respect for the football pyramid and its fans. Football belongs to all of us and decisions should not be taken in back room deals in which only the very wealthiest clubs are allowed to participate.”

To put this into context, 732 teams entered and played in last year’s FA Cup and 711 of those teams knew nothing about the vote or rule changes before the announcement, meaning 2.74% of the tournament made a decision for everyone involved.

As mentioned above, replays allow lower league clubs to generate club-changing money and this isn’t just splashed on new signings, but used to improve the local community.

The Premier League understands this as in its latest announcement mixed in news about the league increasing its funding to the football pyramid, providing up to an additional £33m for grassroots football on top of the £100m it currently gives to ‘good causes’ each season.

Top tier club’s have made their opinions known in the last couple of years, regarding replays. Thomas Frank, Manager of Brentford, earlier this year after a 1-1 draw with Wolves, said: “This is the worst outcome, honestly it is, in every aspect… I don’t understand why nobody in the football world changes this… They need to take some more clever decisions.” 

In 2005 Brentford were in League One and had accumulated £7m of debt. The club played against Southampton (then Premier League side) and got a replay, which generated £500,000. 

This shows the financial value FA Cup replays can bring to clubs – nearly 20 years after that fixture Brentford are competing in the upper half of the Premier League.

Moving away from the effects of this rule change, many fans have pointed out strange aspects of the new rules. One being that the league is removing replays from the first-round when Premier League clubs only enter the competition in the third-round.

Another rule change announced was the alteration of the football calendar. It states that “all rounds of the Emirates FA Cup will now be played on weekends”, but then goes on to say “the fourth round will have an extended window from Friday to Wednesday to allow fans to watch consecutive days of Emirates FA Cup football.”

This coupled with the mid-season break being removed from the calendar to allow a mid-August start date for the Premier League also supports the idea that these decisions were only made with the ‘top six’ in mind. 

The new summer break will enable Premier League clubs to prolong pre-season games or tournaments, often held in locations like the US, Asia, or Australia. Here, clubs can command high ticket prices, drive merchandise sales, and enhance their brand visibility.

To offer a counterpoint, the Premier League’s financial position at the top of the football pyramid is strong as ever.. While these regulations could further boost the league’s financial prowess, some argue that it’s this pursuit of profit that is ultimately detrimental to the essence of the sport.

It’s worth noting that this shift in the FA Cup format occurs at a time when the tournament’s accessibility has been partially compromised, with the recent sale to TNT Sports alongside BBC‘s free-to-air coverage. This move underscores a broader trend where financial considerations are increasingly prioritised over the traditional values of the sport.

The need for an Independent regulator

Unsurprisingly, these changes have been met with a stern protest from nearly every EFL and non-league club in the country. This announcement has also caught the attention of politicians, such as the Mayor of Manchester Andy Burnham.

Burnham posted on social media: “We should fight back against this. The game is being run in the interests of the few, not the many.”

The Mayor went on to offer a solution: “We amend the Football Governance Bill, which is in the Commons on Tuesday, to require that any domestic cup competition can only be changed with a majority vote of all clubs eligible to enter it. Write to your MP today and ask them to support it!

“If the big clubs still want their way, they would have to negotiate a compensation package with those who might miss out. If we can secure cross-party support for this, it could be law before the start of the 24/25 FA Cup.”

Looking forward, more clubs are expected to boycott the changes made to the tournament and this mistake will only act as a catalyst for an Independent Football Regulator, which clubs are pushing for.

In a statement, Exeter City wrote: “That only a select few clubs are allowed to slowly chip away at the very fabric of what makes the English game the envy of most with complete impunity serves only as a reminder of why the Independent Regulator is so desperately needed.

Creating a football regulator is also an objective of the current government, having emerged as a result of the Fan Led Review of Football which came about due to the backlash against the European Super League (ESL) back in 2021.

The Premier League doesn’t seem to be entirely onboard with the proposal, if comments made by CEO Richard Masters recently are anything to go by. However, with backlash against the new FA Cup format evident, it seems governance of English football will have even more persuasion to do. 

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