OPINION: Another attack on the traditions of the greatest club cup competition
Moments after the English Football League '˜escaped' the infiltration of Scottish football giants Celtic and Rangers joining the competition, it seems as though other major changes are afoot.
We already know that a fifth division is likely as the Football League looks to create more space in the calendar as part of its Whole Game Solution.
Fewer teams in the divisions, if the proposals go ahead, is supposed to give managers and players a little breathing space — particularly in the lower leagues where the advent of the much-maligned EFL Checkatrade Trophy has added fixtures to a congested season.
Now, following the dismissal of the idea of inviting clubs from other countries — Scotland — or Premier League B teams into the league, bosses are now contemplating major changes to the FA Cup. Their attack on the historic competition, full of memories and tradition, is supposed to have two benefits — to again free-up space in the schedule by reducing the number of replays, and to create a window for a winter break.
Somehow it now seems inevitable that a winter break will be introduced into English football at some point. The argument seems to be that because England’s international players were so jaded at the last European Championships, a two or three-week break in January would magically make everything all right.
Of course, none of the big clubs, like Manchester United and Manchester City, or London’s Arsenal, Spurs and Chelsea, would use that ‘extra’ time to take their players away on money-spinning tours around the world... would they?
No, the likes of Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford will just be sat with their feet up at home looking through all their Christmas presents.
I know that a winter break is commonplace elsewhere, but would it really make such a difference to the fitness of our top players every other summer? Surely most of them do not play every week as it is because of squad rotation.
Whatever the merits of a break, that seems to be the motive for the latest attack on the FA Cup.
Next summer Football League clubs will be asked to vote on ideas for the Whole Game Solution. Those proposals look likely to include scrapping FA Cup replays — great moneyspinners for lower league clubs and great memory-making trips and ties for the fans — and moving the fourth and fifth round ties to midweek.
At least the third round, when the ‘big boys’ enter the competition, would remain over a weekend. Those few days at the beginning of January are often the most exciting of the whole season.
But, Football League chief executive Shaun Harvey says the fourth and fifth rounds, also often matches of great drama for supporters who can make a great day out of a trip to a ‘big’ club they do not usually play, could now be consigned to midweek.
The loss of replays, a creeping feature of the competition in recent years, seems inevitable when the proposals face a vote next summer.
FA Cup semi-final replays were abandoned in 1999, with sixth-round replays no longer being played from this season.
For now the Football Association has not said anything on the subject, but the further diminishing of our proud competition — the greatest club cup competition in the world — is sad.
Harvey said the changes would generate income for increased solidarity payments from the Premier League to the Football League.
They would also, he said, fill a £20m gap caused by leagues from the Championship down being reduced by four clubs.
Harvey said: “The Premier League already contributes circa £120m per annum to our clubs through solidarity payments.
“Money is circulated that our clubs benefit from via the FA, so it’s not a case of just pointing to one area of income — it’s the overall approach.
“Is there a better distribution model for English football that is fair, that is equitable and gives this type of change — which is significant — an opportunity to be successful?”
I have to confess that I am confused by some of his statements, but if the boss of the Football League is going down this line, it is likely to happen.
Was the idea of Premier League B teams — and the likes of Cetlic and Rangers -—joining the Football League always a red herring, nothing more than a speculative suggestion that the bosses did not really want?
Was it just something thrown into the pot to divert attention away from the changes that they really want — like the scrapping of FA Cup replays, a winter break and moving FA Cup rounds to midweek?