Why a Champions League Spot Should Be Given to the FA Cup WinnerMarch 10, 2014
Traditionalists can say what they want about the FA Cup, but the truth is that its magic has been in decline for some time.
Before the turn of the millennium, the FA Cup Final was a lauded occasion. Everyone wanted to be in it and everyone wanted to watch it.
Most of the showpiece matches that were held during my childhood have stayed with me. Eric Cantona's beautiful 85th-minute volley in the 1996 final between Manchester United and Everton, for example, sticks in my mind like an indelible stain—and I didn't even have a horse in the race that day.
Not so long ago, teams would release songs into the charts in anticipation of their big day at Wembley. Who could forget Arsenal's "Hot Stuff" from 1998? Ahem.
It was a day which held the whole nation's attention and served as a fitting conclusion to the end of the English season.
These days, of course, the world's oldest football cup competition feels a lot less magical.
In the past few seasons, it has been held on the same day as other league and Championship play-off fixtures, making it feel like just another game. Its kick-off time has been moved to past 5 p.m. GMT to satiate the demands of broadcasters, who are watching TV ratings for the game tumble.
We have also seen a proliferation of lesser-calibre teams make it to the latter stages, as the big teams no longer treat it as a priority.
In the past decade, two teams outside the top flight have been scrappy enough to make it to the final (Cardiff in 2008 and Millwall in 2004). This year, it is possible that Championship side Wigan could defend their title and League One's Sheffield United could make it.
The only "big team" in the semi-finals, in fact, is Arsenal.
In the 20 years before Millwall defied the odds to join Manchester United in Cardiff for the 2004 final, no other lower-league side made the final. The only others in most football fans' lifetimes are Sunderland in 1992 and Queens Park Rangers in 1982.
The problem with the competition is that the reward for success is no longer great enough. Premier League teams are not interested in earning a place in the Europa League when they have bigger fish to fry.
In fact, many Premiership sides would prefer not to be in the Europa League at all, such is its relative financial insignificance.
The riches of the Premier League are a major distraction to FA Cup teams. Up and down the table, clubs value money more than trophies.
Take Aston Villa, for example, whose boss Paul Lambert openly admitted that the competition was not a priority in an interview with reporters before his side's apathetic third-round loss to Sheffield United:
If you can get through, then absolutely I want to get through. I don't want to not get through, but your main one is the league.
It is realistic. That is the nature of it. If anyone says any differently, then I am not so sure they will be telling the truth because the Premier League is the most vital thing that anyone wants to get into and we are no different.
Teams in the bottom half of the table prefer to focus on staying in the league, while those in the top half seem to have higher priorities.
Ask a Wigan fan if they would have preferred league survival or the FA Cup last season and they might hesitate before responding. Ask a club employee and they will probably have a very clear answer.
There is a solution to FA Cup apathy: offer a bigger prize.
Why not give the winner the place in the Champions League play-off round instead of offering it to fourth place in the Premier League?
If this was the case, bigger teams would be guaranteed to take the competition more seriously. Those who scoff at the idea of the likes of Sheffield United making the Champions League needn't, as there would be a much slimmer chance of that kind of team getting near the final.
Even if a "lesser" team did win the tournament, they would be weeded out at the Champions League group stage rather than being thrown like proverbial chum to the sharks of the tournament proper.
And who says the likes of Wigan couldn't make an impression against the teams from Israel, Romania or Georgia who typically populate the qualifying rounds?
Adding this incentive would make a big statement about the importance of the Cup. A team who picks up silverware deserves to be rewarded more than a team that finishes fourth in a league—they actually won something!
The Champions League is no longer just a competition for champions, so there is no reason why the FA couldn't justify this idea.
Modern football is no longer driven by pride and a desire to win. It is driven by continued financial prosperity. If we want the FA Cup to survive in this era, we must provide incentive and there is none greater than the Champions League.