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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 27 March 2019

Fight for Premier League spots next season leaves FA Cup wide open

Cost of relegation and prize of promotion to English football's top flight has made cup competition more exciting

Andre Gray celebrates Watford's opening goal during their FA Cup fourth-round match against Newcastle United last month. Ian MacNicol / Getty Images
Andre Gray celebrates Watford's opening goal during their FA Cup fourth-round match against Newcastle United last month. Ian MacNicol / Getty Images

It is the 1982 runners-up against the 1984 finalists. The FA Cup fifth round starts in fitting fashion on Friday night: with two clubs, in Queens Park Rangers and Watford, who have never won the competition.

Eleven of the last 16 have not, even if AFC Wimbledon can at least display the famous trophy in their cabinet after the original Wimbledon’s 1988 victory. Of those five previous winners, two – Wolverhampton Wanderers and Derby County – have not tasted success since 1960 and 1946 respectively.

That leaves the three superpowers, and if it is hard to challenge the widespread assumption that one of Chelsea, Manchester City or Manchester United will be celebrating at Wembley on May 18, either the 2016 or the 2018 winners will go out at Stamford Bridge on Monday.

So improbable opportunities are opening up for others: if not to claim silverware, then at least to reach territory that is either uncharted or not visited in recent memory.

QPR are in the last 16 for the first time in 22 years and have not played in a semi-final for 37; nor have Brighton for 36. Derby’s sole European Cup semi-final came 25 years after their most recent visit to the FA Cup’s last four.

Brentford have never been beyond the quarter-finals. Swansea City were in the last eight last year, but have not reached the semi-finals since 1964. Doncaster’s previous trip to the fifth round was in the 1950s and they have never been beyond it. AFC Wimbledon and Newport have already gone further than ever before.

In one way, it is spectacularly good for the competition. Giant-killings have lent an unpredictability. The moneyed favourites from the world’s richest league have shown a tendency to take an undignified tumble.

In another respect, perhaps there have been too many shocks. The probability is that, with the exception of the clash of the superpowers at Stamford Bridge, television ratings will suffer.

Some viewers may deem ties better in theory than in practice. Some lack a giant to be killed.

When the unusual suspects converge on the latter stages, it represents an indictment of the Premier League. It is outnumbered by the Football League, which has supplied nine of the last 16.

And while three of the big six went out, the exits of injury-hit Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur to Wolves and Crystal Palace respectively are understandable. Arsenal were beaten by United.

Manchester United beat Arsenal in the FA Cup last month. Matthew Childs / Reuters
Manchester United beat Arsenal in the FA Cup last month. Matthew Childs / Reuters

So, with the notable exceptions of Watford, Wolves and Palace, it is a failure of the Premier League’s middle class, the clubs who are not going to go down and whose trophy drought can be measured in the decades.

AFC Wimbledon versus Millwall could have been West Ham United against Everton had wealthy clubs and talented teams shown more competence. Leicester City could have been hosting Manchester City for the third time this season but for a wretched display at Newport.

But there is another dynamic at play. With the exceptions of Bristol City and Derby, it is not the Championship’s leading lights who remain. None of the top four, and only two of the top 11, are still in the FA Cup.

More forgivably, more understandably, some of the Football League’s leading lights have emulated the Premier League clubs they want to join: they have been on the receiving end of upsets.

Norwich City lost to League One side Portsmouth, Middlesbrough to League Two side Newport, Sheffield United to non-league side Barnet. Bristol City have progressed thus far with weakened teams. It is only Frank Lampard and Derby who are really trying to balance dual objectives.

If the cost of relegation deters some Premier League clubs from aiming for the FA Cup, the prize of promotion has become too big to allow some of their Championship counterparts to prioritise it.

Updated: February 15, 2019 08:40 AM

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