Blackpool's defeat to Nottingham Forest reveals the big factor FA Cup is losing

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Blackpool's complaints over the use of VAR in the FA Cup are justified - but the world's oldest competition is facing far bigger problems.

“The integrity of the competition has to be questioned,” said Blackpool manager Neil Critchley after his League One side lost in extra-time of their FA Cup third round replay against Nottingham Forest. It wasn’t necessarily an unreasonable complaint, but neither is integrity the biggest issue that the world’s oldest football competition faces, and last night’s match implied a much larger problem – the FA Cup is losing both its magic and its relevance.

Critchley’s concerns after Wednesday evening’s match centred on Chris Wood’s late winner, and the possibility of an offside in the build-up when Ryan Yates was played down the channel to square to the former Burnley striker. For the first match, at the City Ground, VAR was in use – but with the technology not available at Blackpool, there was no way to check whether Yates had indeed strayed beyond the last man.

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The result is an understandable sense of injustice. Had Yates’ big toe been a millimetre too far down the field, then perhaps the game would have gone to penalties and the hosts would have had a chance to continue their run in the competition. Maybe the goal was legitimate, maybe it wasn’t – we will never know, and Critchley and the watching fans in tangerine will be left to wonder.

Having means of enforcing the rules which exist for some matches and not others has never sat right. The relative levelling of the playing field between David and Goliath is part of the traditional ‘magic of the Cup’, and anything which risks nudging that balance one way or the other – or even risks creating the perception of a nudge – detracts from the perception of fairness and balance. But in truth, there are bigger problems, and the playing field is so far from level that the presence or absence of VAR is of less concern than the question of whether the competition, in its current format, replays and all, is less relevant than it has ever been.

After the 2-2 draw at Forest that earned Blackpool their second chance at springing an upset, Critchley was bullish about the importance of keeping replays in the competition despite complaints over fixture congestion.

“Replays are part of the magic,” he suggested. “We are competitive animals. These moments don’t last long and you don’t get many chances to create memories. There is something magical about this competition. Why not create a happy memory for ourselves that we can have for ever?”

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The baked-in traditions of the Cup support his viewpoint. Lower league sides shocking their more illustrious peers has been a beautiful part of the fabric of the English game for generations – but now the gap between the bigger sides and their less wealthy peers is so large that upsets are an increasingly rare commodity, and there is appreciably less anticipation for the third round, say, than there was 20 years ago. And as fans continue to lose interest, so the financial rewards of replays, one of the key arguments for keeping them, are reduced.

Just 8,098 people were present at Bloomfield Road to watch Forest win 3-2 thanks to Chris Wood’s late goal. That’s less than half of the ground’s capacity of 16,500 and fewer people than have attended any of Blackpool’s home matches in League One this season, including midweek evening matches.

Similarly, Bolton Wanderers attracted just 10,878 supporters for their replay at home to Luton Town – they have had more than double that attendance for games against Carlisle United, Wigan Athletic and Blackpool themselves. It was a rare chance for supporters to soak in that supposed magic and see their side take on tougher opposition, but few appear to have been excited by the prospect, and as such the gate receipts, one of the main attractions of replays, would not have been especially strong.

One can’t blame the fans for failing to be especially excited by the match. Upsets are becoming less frequent as the financial gulf between Premier League sides and their EFL counterparts grows. This year, just three teams managed to beat higher-level opponents to reach the fourth round – Maidstone United, nouveau-riche Wrexham and Bristol City, who were the only lower-league side to knock a Premier League team out of the competition. It’s hard to believe in the magic of the Cup when there is so little evidence for its continued existence.

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That is a crying shame, but there is no obvious fix. Premier League sides are able to hoard resources at a rate that is impossible for less wealthy sides to keep up with, and the gaps between the tiers only grows with each passing season. The struggles endured by the three teams promoted from the Championship last year is further demonstration that the odds on cup upsets are lengthening year on year.

And as shock results become less and less frequent, so the interest wanes, the financial rewards for lower-league clubs are reduced, and the calls to scrap replays entirely, rather than solely from later rounds, grow. Those calls are not unjustified, either – they are one of the few fixtures which can easily be removed from a calendar which is more congested than ever.

Clearly, clubs like Blackpool should not be left stranded, and their occasional chances at a windfall should not be cut off. There is a pressing need for solidarity payments from the Premier League to grow, if only to prevent competitive balance from being compromised even further. But until that happens, the Cup will move inexorably towards the point where the third round is no longer one of the highlights of the English calendar – if it even remains that at this point. Judging by the number of supporters who went to watch Blackpool and Bolton this week, we may already be past that. After all, if the chances of upsets are slim and the financial rewards for lower league sides are no longer there, what purpose do the early rounds of the FA Cup even serve?

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