Newcastle have long since been eliminated from the FA Cup, but that will not stop a significant number of fans watching the semi-finals of this year’s competition. Steeped in tradition, the F.A Cup will always be respected. However, there is now a decidedly unpleasant tradition that infects the modern game. Specifically, that new tradition is the yearly questioning of the FA Cup, and how much of its ‘magic’ it has lost.
Twenty years ago, it was very different, as Newcastle travelled to Old Trafford to face Sheffield United in a victorious cup semi-final. When Alan Shearer netted the decisive goal, the party spirit on Tyneside was palpable.
In terms of English football tradition, the growth of cobwebs inside the Newcastle United trophy cabinet is also a prominent one. For a club of Newcastle’s size, the lack of anything other than two EFL Championships is a stark illustration of everything currently wrong at St James Park. By extension, it is also a testament to how much Premier League survival matters compared to the FA Cup and its inherently distracting qualities.
All that may be required is more motivation than ever to go all out for FA Cup glory over Premier League survival. That motivation, some have pondered, could come from granting the FA Cup winners a Champions League berth instead of the fourth-placed team in the Premier League.
Such an idea was mooted two years ago, along with the possibility of winter breaks and the abolition of quarter-final replays. Ultimately, only the latter move came to pass, and glorious Champions League nights remain as distant as ever for Newcastle – barring a miraculous turnaround in the club’s fortunes, which will only come about should Mike Ashley finally choose to sell.
For fans of Newcastle, and other clubs annually considered likelier to go down than finish in the top four, such a change would be largely welcomed. It would open up a greater possibility of qualifying teams other than the likes of this year’s quarter-finalists Manchester City and Liverpool – the latter of which are now priced at just 11/2 to win the cup by William Hill, after a couple of years away from Europe’s top table. Initially, such a move appears simple, and for the sake of purists, it would retain the prestige of the FA Cup in a way relevant to the modern game.
A gentle reminder of the good times, which cannot realistically return via the league for the foreseeable future.
While a change may sound good in theory, there are additional potential problems. Under current legislation, UEFA coefficient rankings allow England to have four entrants into the competition. English clubs need to keep this relatively high, through good runs in the Champions League, to keep all four places.
Thus, in the event of an FA Cup shock, in which an unprepared team – and an underfunded club – win, England’s lofty standing in the UEFA coefficient could be put at risk. This in itself could also negatively affect the already-microscopic chances of Newcastle reaching the promised land via the league.
Wigan’s win of 2013 – in the club’s relegation season – is a prime example of how such a move could backfire. There is no question that a second-tier Wigan side would have utterly failed in the Champions League. If judged on a majority of performances as a newly-promoted side this season, the current Newcastle squad would fare little better than the Wigan side of 2013 in this hypothetical situation.
The UEFA coefficient system in its current form makes the allocation of a Champions League spot to an FA Cup winner unwise. However, that is not to say it is beyond the realms of possibility. The nature of football is ever-changing, and with dwindling attendances and soaring prices a common theme in the modern game, drastic changes can only come sooner rather than later.