For those new to the world of English football, you might have, once again, glanced at the scoreboard this weekend and been confused as to who was playing. Why was Chelsea playing Watford? And who the devil is Yeovil Town? Just when you thought you were past these wonky matches, as the Capital One Cup shifts into the semifinals, the more prestigious FA Cup takes center stage.
What is it?
The Football Association Challenge Cup (“FA Cup”) is a domestic, single-elimination English football tournament that was first held in 1871-72. Unlike the Capital One Cup, the FA Cup is open not only to the members of the FA, but all clubs in Steps 1-5 (and some from 6) in the FA National League system. This means that amateur village clubs (often known as “pub teams”) could in theory go up against Liverpool as part of this tournament. Think of it as March Madness, with the twist that your local team from the YMCA could go up against Duke.
Why should I care about this?
Unlike the Capital One Cup, most clubs actually care about winning this trophy. You will see some squad rotation, especially in the early stages, but for the most part, clubs care about winning this trophy because of the prestige involved, and will field their stronger sides accordingly. If you are a fan of a club that is frequently in the middle or lower part of the table, this is pretty much your best shot at glory. In addition to being able to hoist the trophy at Wembley Stadium, the winner of the FA Cup is automatically qualified for the Europa League, granting smaller clubs the opportunity to play European football. In 2013, Wigan upset Manchester City in the final to hoist the trophy, then subsequently got relegated from the Premier League, meaning they were playing European football last year while also playing in the Championship.
It can even mean something for the big clubs. It had been nine seasons since Arsenal had won a trophy of any kind going into the last campaign. Although it wasn’t the league title, Arsenal won the FA Cup last season, giving beleaguered manager Arsene Wenger something to point to that vindicated his continuing employment. Not sure that 1 FA Cup trophy in 9+ seasons would be enough at the other title contenders in the Premier League, but at Arsenal, it seems to be enough for now.
It can also mean something to the players. Liverpool captain/legend Steven Gerrard, who is in the final season of his historic run with his boyhood club, has openly talked about how much the competition means to him, and that he wants to go as far as possible this year. "If I weren't here playing for this team, I'd probably be in the stands watching it so I know what [the FA Cup] means to every single supporter, that's why I always try to give my best,” Gerrard said recently.
How does it work?
At the conclusion of each round, there is a live drawing on television for the next round’s matches. There is no seeding, which means top Premier League clubs could face one another, or a pub club. The drawing also encompasses which side hosts the match, which can be a boon for a lower club (both in prestige and, more importantly, in money) when the top clubs visit their stadium. In the event of a draw in the first match, the clubs will play another match at the opposite stadium with the winner advancing. If that match ends in a draw, it proceeds to extra time and then to penalties, if necessary. Until recently, there was no extra time; if the sides ended in a draw again, they played a third match and so on. Thankfully, smarter heads prevailed and the rule was changed.
The FA Cup is another one of those quirks about English football that make it extremely difficult to master for new initiates. The FA Cup is still very important to domestic supporters, as the final was one of the few matches televised in Britain until relatively recently. For me, the final in May is always must-see TV no matter which clubs are playing. It is always a spectacle. For the fans, it’s a chance for your beloved club to spray the champagne, bask in the confetti, and lift a trophy. Even for the top clubs, those opportunities don’t come around that often. I remember when Chelsea won the FA Cup back in 2009, I refused to leave the pub where I was watching until the ceremony was over. Perhaps it was because I wanted another beer. But I think the real reason was that I wanted to bask in the triumph, as I had no way of knowing when another one of my sports teams would win something again (I live in the DC area…it’s been a while for us).
The next set of fixtures in the FA Cup are the weekend of January 24th. The full set of draws for the 4th round have been released and can be found here. We definitely recommend you check it out.
Follow Mike Smith on Twitter @thefootiegent
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