As I write this, Monday-morning feeling exacerbated by headlines lamenting the scenes involving both sets of supporters at Villa Park, there are only two things that can redeem the FA Cup weekend. One is a great match between Manchester United at Old Trafford. The other is a belated recognition that replays should be abandoned.
That they now do the old tournament far more harm than good became ever more obvious both on Saturday, when Reading’s visit to Bradford was a non-event crying out for the injection of drama invariably provided by penalties, and Sunday, when Blackburn deserved their scoreless outcome at Liverpool but neutrals again endured a prolonged ennui for which the most effective remedy would have been a spot-kick decider.
True, the Lancashire town will be excited about an Ewood Park replay, but the Premier League club cannot fit it for a month because of UEFA fixture regulations, so the supporters of whoever wins will have only 10 days in which to prepare for a Wembley semi-final. At least the winners of Reading v Bradford will have longer to contemplate their visit to the national stadium, but both of these clubs must play this Saturday in the Football League before trudging out at the Madejski next Monday.
How the Championship promotion rivals of Watford, who are lucky enough to be at home to Reading on Saturday, will love that. There is also an element of unfairness to City in League One. They cannot complain – and, I’m sure, don’t – that Cup exploits have caused them to fall a little behind with fixtures in the race to the play-offs. But will Phil Parkinson be tempted to rest men at Notts County with Monday in mind?
It’s all wrong and it makes the FA Cup seem almost like a nuisance, when all the once-loved competition needs is to move with the times and recognise that penalty deciders – for all their faults, for all their cruelty and the rough justice they administer – are the best way of enhancing its magic, and of restoring the old equalisers between rich and poor represented by poor pitches (much worse than Valley Parade’s on Saturday, believe me) and underdog-friendly refereeing.
A good example of how the Cup might benefit if replays were abolished took place in this season’s fourth round. Cambridge United were drawn at home to Manchester United. It ended scoreless after 90 minutes, the home support glowing with elation and relief. If we had then gone straight to penalties – I am not bothered about extra time, with its implications for fans using public transport – there would have been a roughly 50/50 chance of a home hero, whether goalkeeper or penalty-taker, emerging.
Instead we had the predictable outcome of an Old Trafford replay: United 3, Cambridge 0. A nice night out for the travellers. A few more bob for the visiting club, which they might have earned from the next round anyway. But sheer anti-climax from the point of view of the competiton overall. And we wonder why its salvation is a constant subject for debate.
In truth 2015 had not been too bad, as FA Cups go, until the nastiness at Villa Park. It has to be ruthlessly stamped upon and anyone old enough to remember the dark days of widespread hooliganism – leading to those hideous fences, dismantled after the horror of Hillsborough – would agree with West Bromwich manager Tony Pulis, who called for his own club’s fans to be banned from the game for life if found guilty of ripping up seats and throwing them at Villa supporters. If only Tim Sherwood – a younger and, on this occasion, less wise man – had been as angry about Villa’s pitch invaders.
The FA must come down hard on all concerned, including themselves and the BBC for allowing this clearly risky match to be staged at the end of a long and, clearly in some cases, drunken day off. With friends like these, the old Cup hardly needs enemies.