Scrapping FA Cup replays a ‘dreadful decision’

For former Wimbledon captain Ian Cooke, taking reigning league champions Leeds Utd to an FA Cup fourth-round replay in 1975 ranks as one of the most cherished moments of his career.

After goalkeeper Dickie Guy’s penalty save from Peter Lorimer earned the then non-league Dons a goalless draw at Elland Road, Alan Batsford’s outfit gained widespread adulation for the result.

It meant that Messrs Bremner, Giles and co, who contested that season’s European Cup final, would have to travel south, and do battle with a team four divisions below them all over again in front of the BBC cameras.

And despite Leeds ultimately winning the return fixture 1-0 at Selhurst Park – moved from Plough Lane due to a waterlogged pitch – Cooke, now 80, looks back with fondness on what him and his teammates achieved.

“For people like myself, looking back, those are the games [against Leeds] that you pick out from your memories. It was the icing on the cake,” he recalled.

“Even now, if I meet up with some of the guys, we obviously start talking about it and the fans still talk about it at Wimbledon to this day. It’s legend in the annuls of the club.”

That replay almost half a century ago is one of the many threads that has formed the tapestry that is the FA Cup’s rich history.

But there will be no more.

The Football Association announced in April that all FA Cup replays will be scrapped from the first round onwards next season as part of a six-year deal with the Premier League.

It completes the phasing out of replays which began in the 1999/00 season when that year’s final and semi-finals ensured a winner on the day.

The quarter-finals and fifth round followed suit in 2016 and 2018 respectively.

“The new schedule ensures the magic of the Cup is protected and enhanced,” said FA chief executive Mark Bullingham, nodding to the extra funding and the exclusive FA Cup weekends which is also part of the agreement.

But many connected with AFC Wimbledon, who won the FA Cup in 1988 when they were Wimbledon FC, and others from the wider footballing community don’t see it that way.

They feel the change regarding replays threatens to pull at those very threads and unravel all that is special about the world’s oldest cup competition.

“A pretty dreadful decision” – Scrapping replays robs FA Cup of magic

Dons Trust vice chair Angus Fox said: “I think it’s a pretty dreadful decision, and there’s lots of reasons for that, but the main one is there’s something magical about the FA Cup.

“It’s such an old and enthralling competition, that an underdog club could possibly beat or draw against a top club and have the most the fantastic day out because of that.

“It would perhaps be the highlight of those player’s careers, playing against the stars they idolised from another team, and that’s what is lost when you get rid of the replays.”

Ray Armfield, head of the Wimbledon Old Players Association (WOPA), added: “You’ve seen how other cup competitions have been devalued and you really wouldn’t want the FA Cup to go the same way, but this decision doesn’t help.”

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Fox pointed out that a lot of the time, the prize for a lower league club is the reverse fixture in front of their home fans which gives them a bigger opportunity to cause a giant killing.

“Your pitch might not be what a bigger team is used to playing on, your fans will certainly be for you and not for them, and that helps when trying to cause an upset,” he said.

Lack of consultation “disgraceful” and “crazy”

The lack of consultation between the FA, Premier League, and clubs in the English Football League (EFL) and National League was one of the reasons for the extensive anger that was sparked amongst club officials and fans.

An EFL statement said the decision to abolish replays was made “solely between the Premier League and FA” and is another “example of how the EFL and its Clubs are being marginalised in favour of others further up the pyramid”.

Tranmere Rovers labelled the move “disgraceful” while Rochdale fan and journalist Jimmy Moorhouse called it “crazy”.

Freelance sports journalist John Davidson was also surprised and disappointed that such an alteration to the FA Cup had been made without a consensus.

Davidson also thinks any chance of seeing replays reinstated depends upon the strength of cross-divisional support from fans, including those of Premier League clubs.

“I think it would be difficult [to reverse the decision] because I’m not sure where the fans of those in the top tier sit [on the matter],” he said.

“I think if enough of those fans get onboard and support the EFL and non-league clubs and there’s a groundswell of national support, I think that really could scupper it.

“But if it’s a fractured situation I can’t see much change.

“It will be fascinating to see what happens in the next couple of weeks and whether a bit of a movement can pick up some pace.”

The FA defended the decision in a statement 24 hours after the news broke which said: “Removing Emirates FA Cup replays was discussed in the early meetings and all parties accepted that they could not continue.”

“Another lost revenue stream” – FA Cup earnings crucial to smaller clubs’ finances

Trevor Birch, chief executive of the English Football League (EFL), fears for the lost income generated by replays, which can be pivotal to the finances of clubs lower down the football pyramid.

He said: “Ultimately this represents another lost traditional revenue stream for EFL clubs at a time when the financial gap between the biggest clubs and those further down the pyramid is growing bigger.”

The importance of the money a club receives via the competition in the forms of prize money, television revenue, gate receipts and sponsorship cannot be overstated.

When Rochdale, then in League One, drew 2-2 with Tottenham in the fifth round back in 2018, it took their FA Cup campaign earnings past £1m.

Keith Hill, who was the manager at the time, said the money would support the club for the next three years and Moorhouse continues to echo Hill’s sentiments.

He said: “The financial element is massive for a club like us, its so important for keeping you going.”

However the FA’s statement also says there is set to be an increase in the number of televised fixtures in the earlier rounds which “will lead to additional guaranteed broadcast revenue for EFL and National League teams”.

FA Cup clashes can be “massive” turning points

Moorhouse also spoke about how a positive result in the FA Cup can change the league fortunes of a team, something which happened to Rochdale after the stalemate with Tottenham.

He continued: “That game was just a massive turning point for the season both in terms of money and in turns of belief.

“That if you can take Spurs to another game, you could maybe stay up in League One and we ended up doing that.”

Prior to the draw at Spotland, Rochdale sat bottom of League One with just 26 points after 30 games.

But afterwards, the Greater Manchester-based club took 25 points from their remaining 16 league games and achieved safety on the final day of the season.

Fox summarised that everyone, whether they are a grandparent, parent, or child, will have their own special replay memory and that without them, the competition is set to lose some of it’s magic.

He said: “That’s the glamour of the FA Cup, and now it’s gone.”

Featured image credit: philosophyfootball via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.0 DEED licence

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