Why scrapping FA Cup replays might be a good idea - despite the EFL uproar

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The decision to scrap FA Cup replays from next year makes sense in many ways - but there are major financial concerns to be addressed.

The backlash against the Premier League and FA for their behind-closed-doors deal to scrap replays from the first four rounds of the FA Cup has been nearly absolute. Searching for dissenting voices leaves one wandering the streets like Diogenes with his lantern looking in vain for an honest man – something he would certainly not find within football’s halls of power these days.

For the Tranmere Rovers board, the decision to rip replays from the calendar was “disgraceful.” For EFL chief executive Trevor Birch, it was “frustrating and disappointing.” Mark Barrett, a committee member for Horsham FC, one of the non-league clubs who benefited from a money-spinning replay this season, used rather earthier language in calling it a “complete s***show.” Variations on the theme are available from representatives of just about every club below the Premier League level.

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But for all the anger, the accusations that the decision will rob the FA Cup of some of its last vestiges of romance and tradition, and for all of the fears that the change will leave smaller clubs trailing even further behind financially – is it really such a terrible move? Will lesser sides really suffer so much in the new world order?

It’s evident that the way in which the decision was reached has caused outrage, and that element of the backlash is entirely reasonable. The FA and Premier League came to their decision without any form of consultation with the EFL or non-league clubs – sides who are stakeholders every ounce as much as the teams at the top table are. For them to be frozen out of the process in this way was pathetic and cowardly. Whether their objections to the schedule change are right or wrong, their voices should have been heard.

Many of those clubs are angry at the perception that they are losing chances to host glamorous matches which generate vital funds and exposure when their Davids’ matches against Premier League Goliaths go to a second game. Teams like Horsham and Cray Valley Paper Mills – non-league sides who welcomed Barnsley and Charlton Athletic back to their home grounds in first-round replays this season – have benefited massively from those matches.

Frank May, chairman of Cray Valley, who play in the eight tier of the English pyramid, made the case for replays in an interview on BBC Radio 5 Live, telling the station that their eventual defeat to Charlton “put us on the map.”

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"We were getting offers to buy replica shirts from all over the world, it was something we could only dream about,” he said. “[It] is the world-famous FA Cup and there are so many memorable moments that would not have been seen if this rule was announced years ago."

Such games are, undoubtedly, enormous for smaller clubs, but they are few, far between, and hardly a reliable source of income. Only a couple of non-league or lower league teams earn replays each year, while the rest get nothing. In this season’s edition of the tournament, just four non-league teams earned replays against EFL opposition, one of which, Eastleigh, were one of just four sides from outside the top two tiers to get home replays against higher-level teams in the third round.

Of those four third-round replays, two games, hosted by Blackpool and Bolton Wanderers, saw the clubs welcome below-average attendances on a midweek evening. The number of games which can genuinely put clubs on the map and fill their pockets with hard-earned gate receipts and broadcast cash is low.

Most teams get little, if anything, from the current system, and some clubs will lose money hosting the less glamorous ties that must be played. While the system produces exciting and romantic matches in dribs and drabs, it is not an even or equitable way for money and exposure to be distributed among the teams involved, and certainly isn’t a reliable source of either.

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In any case, games going straight to extra-time and penalties rather than running through to a replay can only increase the chances of smaller teams beating bigger ones. After all, holding out for 30 more minutes against a bigger and better team is much easier than 90. And when upsets happen, those smaller teams get prize money for their successes and another shot at a lucrative home tie in the next round. A small side earning a replay away to one of the bigger teams is great.

A small side beating them and getting to add a great fixture to their schedule a round later is even better. Scrapping replays does not kill David and Goliath games off with one carefully-aimed stone. There will be just as many, it’s just that the format will be different.

Some of the negative feedback, especially – but not exclusively - from supporters, has drifted gently in the direction of traditionalism for its own sake. Replays have been a part of the narrative fabric of the FA Cup for generations and plucky little underdogs welcoming some of the biggest sides in the country to their much-loved little rec grounds provide some of the most romantic plot points in English football’s annual story.

But just because something has existed for a long while shouldn’t be reason enough on its own to stand pat. Replays have produced many wonderful memories, but they shouldn’t become sacred cows for the sake of it when the benefits are at best intermittent.

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And there are benefits to binning replays, too. While the decision was largely made due to the need to reduce the ridiculous schedule congestion that elite teams face – a situation which is soon to be exacerbated by the newly expanded Champions League and Club World Cup formats – congestion is a problem for smaller sides too, and arguably a worse one given how many more fixtures are lost to bad weather and unplayable pitches in non-league.

The number of games that teams and players are required to play has become ridiculous, and is getting worse by the year. The World Cup is being expanded too, and the European Championships already have been. Players are playing through injuries and pain-killing injections as a matter of routine.

The greed of FIFA and UEFA is making everything worse, and the greed of the biggest clubs is preventing them from pushing back or resting their players when they probably should. There is so much money to be made, so much advertising space to be sold, and nobody who stands to profit wants to miss out, regardless of the consequences.

Millwall manager Neil Harris, asked about the decision to scrap replays, was clear-eyed about where the biggest issues lie: “I don’t blame the FA and I don’t blame the EFL, certainly. I’m passionate about the FA Cup – it’s a brilliant competition.

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“It’s the football calendar. It’s absolutely ridiculous. European football is a joke, it’s all about money. And all that’s doing is affecting teams down the pyramid system. The Premier League look like they don’t want to share that wealth and don’t want to do the deal with the EFL – that’s a shambles in itself.”

Nail, head, hammer. The loss of the uneven and intermittent sharing of wealth that replays represented would be entirely reasonable – or at least much less of a blow – if the Premier League and the FA made sure that money trickled down from the top tier in a fairer and more regular manner.

The decision made by the Premier League clubs to reject a new financial deal with the EFL – one which would have considerably increased the cash sent along the ladder – underpins the biggest issue with the scrapping of replays. While they may not be a reliable or equitable method of distributing money, the top flight’s lack of willingness to share the wealth suggests that a just means of ensuring the financial security of smaller clubs won’t be forthcoming any time soon. At least replays were something.

The FA has said that the new, post-replay world will include more broadcast slots in the earlier rounds of the competition, providing more chances for TV money for smaller teams, but broadcasters will inevitably opt for the best-supported sides when picking their matches and such an addition won’t help many smaller, less widely-supported clubs to make ends meet. The FA’s official statement also said that they will continue to review prize money, but stopped short of making any commitment to increasing it in earlier rounds to spread the load around a little.

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The conclusion is that scrapping replays could well be a good thing. It will ease the unconscionable pressure on the fixture list up and down the league ladder and will reduce the number of loss-making fixtures that smaller sides have to host. But without an equitable method of distributing the competition’s wealth and ways to make sure that smaller sides who win a few games are adequately rewarded, then there is nothing to replace any money or exposure lost with replays.

As long as the biggest teams continue to demonstrate their self-interest and continue to run the game without consultation and without a single thought spared for the ‘lesser’ sides upon which the competitive nature of English football hinges, there will be a sense of injustice and unfairness.

Replays provided tiny, intermittent scraps from the top table. It’s sad that they became something clubs had to rely on, or at least pray for, and their loss isn’t so very great unless the traditional make-up of the game is something upon which you wish to build your personal footballing church.

But something, and hopefully something better, has to replace them. The financial state of the lower tiers of the pyramid is parlous, and the lack of support and concern from those at the very top is a continuing disgrace.

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