The famous third round of football’s oldest cup competition is upon us once more.
Traditionally, it’s at this stage that the pluckier minnows, who normally have no business on the elite stage, do battle against superstar opponents on a comically poor playing surface. And, every so often, they join the pantheon of giant-killing legends who succeed against all the odds.
Think back to Wrexham dumping out champions Arsenal in 1992, or Hereford’s legendary defeat of the mighty Newcastle in 1972:
Just look at the state of that pitch!
It’s those sort of FA Cup encounters that are etched in the memory and give the competition its magical reputation. And we do still get the occasional major upset – little-known Leeds knocking out Manchester United back in 2010, for example:
However, with decreasing attendances, declining TV viewerships, untraditional sponsorships, questionable kick-off times and many clubs not really giving a toss about it anymore, the magic of the cup is not alive and well at all – despite what commentators will try and claim this weekend.
So, we’ve taken stock of the FA Cup’s current plight to find out how to rejuvenate the inimitable aura around it.
It’s an easier job than you may have realised…
1. Randomly plough pitches the night before games
Ideally this will most affect top tier teams when facing lower league opposition. As we can see from the Hereford example, it’s one hell of a way to even the playing field, so to speak.
Who cares if the Premier League’s top scorer twists his ankle on a pothole? Would anyone be bothered if tiki-taka possession football turned into hoofy-lumpy up the pitch? Not at all if it meant Manchester City crashing out at home to lowly Macclesfield.
That’s something all football fans can surely get behind.
2. Every team must start at least two local part-time players
The favoured pre-match discussion topic when non-league teams feature in early rounds of the FA Cup is discovering what players’ lifestyles and 9-to-5 jobs are compared to their megastar opponents.
It could be contrasting Paul Pogba’s weekly wage to the yearly salary of a waiter, who also happens to be Dartford FC’s midfield general. Or perhaps looking at what car Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang drives compared to a Curzon Ashton centre-back who can only train when he’s not on shift at the local fire station.
That’s part and parcel of what makes the early FA Cup rounds so intriguing – so why not roll it across the board? We don’t care whether they’re a teacher, plumber, milkman, builder, bailiff, whatever… just bung two part-timers in every team to help balance it out.
Imagine Kevin De Bruyne trying to play a through ball to Dave the barman from the nearby Wetherspoon.
What a way to ensure the FA Cup reconnects with local communities!
3. Non-league teams’ goals count double
National League South outfit Woking are the lowest ranked team in this year’s third round, with the Surrey side taking on Premier League Watford. How they would love this rule to be a thing of reality.
Just imagine the excitement around this fixture if everyone watching knew that if Woking were to snatch a goal from somewhere, they would immediately take a 2-0 lead?
It would encourage attacking football from both sides (tick), make the cup fun to watch (tick), help a non-league side progress in the competition (tick) and get back that magical feeling (big fat tick).
Full marks for this new rule.
4. All players must look ridiculous
One for the “back in my day” FA Cup purists, the look and feel of when the competition was genuinely unmissable viewing could be recreated by enforcing players adopt comedy 1970s/80s moustaches, sideburns, perms and mullets.
Oh, and Alan Partridge-style short shorts, obviously.
5. Clubs must play at least half of their first-choice XI
A common complaint from those who bemoan what the FA Cup has become is how bigger teams rotate their side in the early rounds. Can anyone really get excited for something like Newport County v Leicester City when you just know all of Foxes’ big guns will be warming the bench at best?
To combat this clubs must be forced to name at least six players who started their previous league game.
No longer will the third round be a breeding ground for unheard youth players making their debuts. With big clubs and players taking the cup seriously again – along with those two part-timers, of course – fans will come flooding back.
Put these all together and you’ve got a foolproof plan to instantly revive the magic of the cup. So, knowing how the FA operate, next year expect them to instead drag out the third round over two weekends, schedule the biggest ties for 4am to suit overseas fans and work out a way to make it Premier League reserve teams only.
Ah, the magic of the cup.