Morning all, and it still is despite the lateness of the post. The Premier League goes into hibernation for a week – ten days for Arsenal thanks to the fixture scheduling – and the FA Cup takes precedence. Some will tell you it should not be this way, the Football Association’s pride and joy has become a national tragedy. A proud and globally admired competition devalued, pushed to one side and treated contemptuously, according to the media, by a procession of managers fielding sides which were not full strength.
I understand why people may not like the competition, it can be seen as a distraction. Personally, I have veered in that direction myself as the list of winners becomes entirely predictable. I am sure some felt like that when Arsenal reached the final in successive seasons as the 1970s drew to a close. But there is more to it than that, something I touched on in the 2013 FA Cup Final Saturday post, wittily entitled “The Cup Final Saturday & We’re Not In It Post”. That highlighted the problems; we used to make more of a fuss of the day itself, it ended the season unlike now when broadcasters have shortened their coverage by several hours. We could pressurise them into bringing back that wall-to-wall programming. Cup Final It’s A Knockout could still be hosted by Stuart Hall, contestants would be his fellow inmates who negotiate fiendishly designed tasks whilst those watching launch an audacious escape plan. That’s two 70s shows for the price of one with Cup Final Porridge resurrected on the back of it. Quite literally given that a number of the cast have passed away.
The Final is just the tip of the iceberg. The biggest nail in the competition’s coffin, the surest sign of its devaluation is the knowledge that there is another round of Premier League fixtures immediately afterwards. That scheduling is baffling, making the last Sunday of the season anti-climactic in its build-up. It is bad enough with international breaks, with eight days between matches due to television. A fortnight off just so that the FA Cup Final can take place is nonsensical, confirmation that the Premier League dominates the English game on and off the pitch. Rectification of this balance needs to happen if the FA Cup is to be restored to anything like its former glories.
Simplistically, most people would prefer a top four finish over a day in the sunshine in May. There is a logic to the argument, Champions League football has sustained the club financially in recent years. The club assured us it wasn’t necessary and that they had budgeted for a season or two without the Champions League income or operating on reduced Europa League income. The flip side of that coin though is the barrier of winning a trophy, perhaps the Premier League would be less overwhelming with the knowledge that the squad were already winners.
It is a tough job and Arsenal are not without criticism in this. Since winning the trophy in 2005, there has been a concerted effort on the part of Arsene to take advantage of the competition to rotate his squad and give younger players the chance to learn their trade. It is a move which has backfired eventually, in subsequent seasons. The choice of teams is open to criticism and half-hearted performances such as the 0 – 4 drubbing at Old Trafford are not easily forgotten. Nor, for example, the loyalty to the side which had reached the semi-final but Chelsea were a different proposition. Not that fielding a strong XI has been any guarantee of success either. Yet if you look at the fixture lists at the time, you can understand the prioritisation of other competitions over the FA Cup most of the time.
Tomorrow holds no such caveats. A nine-day rest to the encounter with Aston Villa is motivation enough to field the strongest possible XI? Of course the manager is hamstrung by hamstrings and other ailments which need to be borne in mind but anyone whose statistics are approaching the infamous Red Zone will benefit surely from rest next week? We will know more after Arsène’s press conference has been dissected, devoured and disseminated but the nagging doubt is that he may be struggling to find an XI in the first place.