Picture the scene: It’s FA Cup third round weekend and non-league Macclesfield Town are hosting Championship side Sheffield Wednesday. Steve Williams has just scored a lovely equalizing goal for the underdogs with 12 minutes to go, and a woefully out of form Owls team look on the rack. The crowd of 5,873 roars, sensing blood and urging their team on to complete a major upset.
But the Silkmen boss John Askey withdrew his two forwards and the home side recoiled into a solid, defensive shape. They preserve a 1-1 draw and with it, a replay at Hillsborough in ten days time. Town put up a decent effort in the replay, but are eventually beaten 4-1 by a superior Wednesday team.
The benefits of an FA Cup replay for a team like Macclesfield Town — who have an outstanding tax debt of £150,000 — are obvious and it’s easy to see why in the aforementioned tie, a draw is perhaps more preferable than a win. A game against a bigger side at their ground has massive monetary implications and would go a fair way to paying off those crippling debts; £150,000 is a pretty sizeable amount for a club of Macclesfield’s stature.
Aside from their financial windfalls, though, has the FA Cup replay become an outdated and unwanted part of the game? Up until the 1990’s, teams would play two, three or four games in order to get a result. Now teams will play just a solitary replay followed by extra-time and penalties if the game is still tied.
But have these replays — which have passed by almost unnoticed this week — now become one game too many as well? Shouldn’t a competition thats motto is essentially “anyone can beat anyone on a given day” have matches that finish on said day?
Some managers are starting to question exactly that. Swansea boss Michael Laudrup expressed his views on the matter, suggesting it’s time to think about abolishing replays altogether via BBC Sport:
“With the fixtures we have, having a replay can really hurt. Last year we had a replay against Arsenal in a very tight January schedule.
“I really don’t understand, with so many fixtures, why you still have the rule with the replay.”
The fixture congestion is a big concern for a host of bosses at all levels on the soccer pyramid. Typically, the third round of the FA Cup signals the restart of regular, weekly action after a scattering of fixtures over the festive period. But not if you have a replay. It’s yet another midweek game and another 90 minutes at least to push a leggy squad to the limit right after they’ve already been put through the ringer.
These games push supporters to the limit, too. An additional midweek game on top of the league fixtures is added cost for fans who feel obliged to attend every home game. For away supporters, it’s nigh-on impossible to get the time off work and arrange an away trip at such short notice. In truth, a lot of supporters just don’t bother.
Manchester City’s official attendance for their replay against Blackburn was recorded at 35,000, although the vast amounts of empty seats would suggest otherwise. Just 12,302 were at Hillsborough (capacity 40,000) to watch the Owls take on Macclesfield, 11,172 at Craven Cottage (capacity 25,000) for Fulham vs. Norwich, and 9,914 at St Andrews (capacity 30,000) for Birmingham City against Bristol Rovers. It’s very sad to see such a prestigious competition being played out before swathes of empty seats and dreary atmospheres.
It may seem like an elitist Premier League-based notion. But is it really worth playing replays when interest is obviously so low and stadiums are relatively empty? The only point of them is essentially for a lower league team to rarely bag a draw at home against a “big” side and obtain a financial windfall in the subsequent replay.
Returning to the example of the Macclesfield tie, whilst a replay at Hillsborough will have generated a fair whack of revenue for the club, the prize money for progressing to round four stands at £67,500 — a sum which would go almost half way to paying off the outstanding amounts owed. Not to mention, they have a much greater chance of bagging a big name in the next round of the competition the deeper they progress.
Plus, getting rid of replays would reintroduce a sense of prestige and meaning to a tournament that has suffered a bit of a battering the last few campaigns. With the prospect of extra-time and the lottery of penalties, teams would take the competition a lot more seriously and subsequently reaffirm some much-needed relevance to the competition once again.
And from an entirely romanticist perspective, what are supporters going to talk about when reminiscing in the pub? The time their side got a draw at home against Manchester United, set off for a replay at Old Trafford and were subsequently outplayed? Or the time they took United to extra-time, then to penalties and then beat them in front of their own jubilant fans?
I bet if you asked Wigan supporters if they’d rather have stayed up last season or won the FA Cup, the vast majority would say the latter. Days of celebration and memories of glory stay with you forever. Surely that’s what the game is all about?
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