LUCRATIVE IN THE LEAGUE OR A CAPTIVATING CUP CAMPAIGN: DOES A RUN IN THE FA CUP COME AT A PRICE?
This weekend saw 16 EFL clubs advance to the fourth round of the FA Cup, with Blackpool, Doncaster and Crawley picking up particularly impressive results against opposition from higher divisions, but with all three still having plenty to play for in their respective leagues, was it worth them winning?
It has become something of a cliché in recent years that progress in the world’s oldest cup competition will almost always come at the expense of results in the league.
Like practically all clichés, it is based on a fair amount of logic – players who reach the latter rounds of the cup play more games, increasing the likelihood of injury, suspension, or fatigue later in the season. They are, in theory, at a disadvantage in comparison to those who were knocked out in the first round and therefore have more time to rest, resulting in less tiredness or need for rotation come spring.
Over the past ten seasons, only one EFL club of the 16 that have reached the last eight of the FA Cup went on to secure automatic promotion in their league campaign – League One Wigan in 2018. A further three sides reached the play-offs – League One Millwall in 2017, Championship Wigan in 2014 and Championship Reading in 2011. The majority either just missed out on the play-offs or finished marginally clear of relegation trouble, indicating their cup exerts might have allowed rivals to gain an edge on them.
This is of course is not a perfect science as many of these clubs would likely have finished in similar league positions with or without a run in the cup. What is interesting though is that these 16 sides only won 28.56% of their league matches that directly followed an FA Cup tie.
The reasons for this are most likely intangibles such as form, morale or the distraction of a trip to Wembley, but the benefits of progressing through the rounds are undeniably palpable.
Ahead of his sides third round penalty shoot-out defeat to Brighton, Newport County
manager Michael Flynn spoke of how the club’s success in the FA Cup in recent seasons has been more financially lucrative than a promotion from League Two would have been. The Exiles have taken on the likes of Leicester, Manchester City and Tottenham at Rodney Parade in recent years, bringing in a hefty chunk of broadcasting money on each occasion.
From the perspective of supporters, these ties against Premier League opposition will live long in the memory. The win over the Foxes is Newport’s greatest victory since reforming in 1989, and they were only denied a win against Spurs the year before thanks to a late Harry Kane equaliser - setting up a replay at Wembley which the Amber Army will surely never forget.
Similarly, Bradford fans will always have their miraculous comeback win at Stamford Bridge in 2015 to eulogise about as their side toil in the lower reaches of the fourth tier, and Wigan’s win over Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in 2018, still evokes definite joy in this uncertain time for the club.
The jubilation of promotion can soon be decimated by relegation the following season, a play-off finish easily forgotten should it not lead to post-season glory, but a miraculous evening in the cup becomes crystalised in the minds of supporters for decades.
The FA Cup this season is unlike ever before. There are no supporters in grounds to provide either electric mid-winter atmospheres nor lucrative gate receipts, no money-spinning replays to boost club coffers, and a handful of teams have been forced to field a full eleven of youth-teamers due to Covid issues.
Whilst this does, on the face of it, reduce the value of advancing through the rounds, the essence of the FA Cup remains, and with supporters exiled, players and staff have taken sole ownership of the competitions’ much talked about ‘magic’. Whether it be Chorley Town butchering an Adele hit or Crawley giving a late cameo to a reality TV star, this year’s FA Cup has still been one to remember.
There is nothing quite like a run in a knock-out competition for a lower-league club. The embarrassment your scheduled league opponent faces for not having a fixture, the rest of your division forced to get by on bread and butter whilst those in the latter stages of the FA Cup enjoy champagne and caviar with the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United, and of course the potential to create history by reaching Wembley.
The FA Cup elicits such intoxicating pipedreams of glory that the knock-on effect of a league hangover should be merely an afterthought for Blackpool, for Doncaster, and for Crawley.
We should all allow ourselves to get carried away by the cup.