Following a comeback from 2-0 down to draw with current European Champions, Liverpool, you could forgive League One side Shrewsbury Town for wanting to enjoy their moment in the spotlight, thwarting Jurgen Klopp’s side in a highly entertaining encounter.
Klopp however, was less than amused that his side will have another fixture to fulfill, having already played 39 games this season in all competitions. The German went as far to say that neither himself, nor his senior squad would have any part to play in the replay at Anfield. Instead Liverpool will be fielding an U23 squad with Neil Critchley standing standing in the dugout. The bombshell undoubtedly took the shine and focus off of what was supposed to be Shrewsbury’s evening and another example of how the world’s oldest competition has become despised by the elite in recent years. Critchley was in the dugout earlier in the season as Liverpool’s youngsters were dispatched 5-0 in the Carabao Cup by Aston Villa. However, with the Club World Cup in progress at the time, Klopp’s hands were effectively tied.
With a pile-up of fixtures, the former Borussia Dortmund manager wants to make full use of the newly enforced, Premier League winter break, stating; “In April 2019 we got a letter from the Premier League, I think, where they asked us to respect the winter break and not to organise international friendlies or competitive games. We respect that. So I said to the boys already two weeks ago that we will have a winter break which means we will not be there. It will be the kids who play that game.” Despite this, the winter break was implemented by the Premier League, not the FA who are under no obligation to keep this period of time fixture free. In football, the downside of being successful is having to play more games each season. Football League clubs already play 46 league games compared to the Premier League’s 38, with an extra cup competition in the form of the Leasing.com Trophy as well.
The 52-year-old, along with Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has been very vocal in recent weeks in calling for the total abolition of FA Cup replays in order to relax their fixture schedule and to protect players from burnout. Whilst such calls are very much understandable, it’s rather difficult to believe that Liverpool and City wouldn’t be jetting off to the United States for money spinning friendlies had the Premier League not specifically prevented them from doing so like they do in pre-season. Klopp and Guardiola have their own agendas, with seemingly little care for the losses in finance a ban of replays would cause lower Football League sides who often rely on such income season to season in order to balance the books. Understandably though both just want what is best for their respective clubs and it isn’t their job to look out for other teams.
One man who has seen both sides of the metaphorical coin is Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe who guided the Cherries from League Two and has established them as a Premier League side. “If you said to me five, six years ago scrap FA Cup replays, we’d have been up in arms because that replay may well have been the moment that the club had transfer funds to sign a player or save the club from extinction.” Ignorance can be seen as a big factor in calls for this. Most Premier League clubs are frequently spending £30 million and above for a single player whilst such money would financially stabilise many clubs lower down the pyramid for the next decade and beyond. Clubs like Liverpool, Manchester United etc will never know the pain of struggling to get their wages out on time on occasions or being forced to cash in on their most valuable assets in order to survive. Shrewsbury manager Sam Ricketts has stated their replay with Liverpool will enable the club to buy video analysis equipment for the training ground and better drainage for some of their pitches.
Questions must be asked of Klopp’s attitude and the example he is setting by not even attending the replay. Indeed many of his fringe players were given a chance to shine in Sunday’s 2-2 draw. Whilst the likes of Joel Matip, Fabinho and Dejan Lovren all returned from injury, they are unlikely to receive further chances to earn significant match fitness before the two sides lock horns once more. Fellow first-teamers Xherdan Shaqiri and James Milner can also be added to this growing list. Going into the latter part of the season with Liverpool 16 points ahead in the Premier League title race and also looking to retain the Champions League, you would think fielding such players to gain match fitness would be in their best interests.
Many have questioned the lack of respect shown by Premier League sides and now also some Championship sides as well for resting numerous players, especially when League One and Two players receive fines for playing weakened sides in the Leasing.com Trophy. Luton qualified for the knockout stages of the competition back in the 2016/17 season, earning £20,000 in the process, only to be deducted £15,000 of that for what had been perceived as them fielding under strength sides. In beating Gillingham and West Ham in the group stages they fielded nine and seven academy graduates respectively and in a competition that is supposed to promote youth players, it seems odd that the respect isn’t a two-way street with similar rules implemented in the FA Cup too.
In recent years the competition has begun to pander to the Premier League, last season removing fifth round replays all-together and moving the fifth round fixtures to midweek. Having realised they can move their weight around, they are now pushing to go one step further. It’s important to remember that for such clubs, who enter the competition in the third round, they will play a maximum of eight matches to get to the final. Meanwhile the same clubs will play a minimum of six matches just to progress from the group stages of the Champions League and Europa League. These competitions are undoubtedly much more lucrative, but the same can be said of the FA Cup for Football League clubs.
The competition had 736 teams involved last season and has always been seen as the people’s cup with clubs involved four months in advance to Premier League and Championship clubs joining. Other suggestions have been made that the lowest ranked side should host ties so that clubs can welcome bigger outfits to their grounds for this one off spectacle. The counter argument however is that the likes of Macclesfield and Morecambe would miss out on magical trips to the likes of Old Trafford and as well, the all-important stadia gate share too. Lincoln are a perfect example of a side reaping the rewards of the competition after reaching the quarter-finals of the competition in the 2017/18 season. In doing so they became the first Non-League side in 103 years to reach the last eight. Such was the reward for their efforts that the revenue from the competition hugely aided their climb from the Conference to League One which they gained promotion to last season.
With football’s elite growing further out of touch and evermore money hungry, it feels as though the FA Cup will continue to decline until it is nothing more. Largely speaking there probably isn’t a solution that will benefit both parties and at the moment it looks like a losing battle to keep a much-loved competition relevant and competitive. The question at the end of the day is will the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many?