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FA Cup to drop replays in fifth round

The cup just got a little less magic-y.

Chelsea v Manchester United - The Emirates FA Cup Final
I still love you, even if nobody else does
Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

The English football pyramid is, in theory, a purely meritocratic thing. If your team is good enough, it climbs up that pyramid and ends up at the top - not necessarily as winners of the top league, but at least in theory, it is possible for a club to start at the very, very bottom and, over several seasons, work and win their way to the top.

That top, as we know, is a magical Valhalla full of money, shiny baubles, and more money, and it is at the top of the top that the loose conglomeration of the biggest of the big, aka the Big Six, reside. That group of six clubs - at least two of which may vary every once in a while, but most of whom are pretty constant - don’t in theory have any more statutory or rules-making power than the rest of the 86 clubs in the pyramid, but in reality, they very much do, thanks to the outsized economics at play in those six clubs.

Never forget, the Premier League was formed in order to hoard resources among the big clubs, not share them; while they can’t unilaterally form their own closed mini-league of six teams, they are certainly going to use their muscle to bend the top of the pyramid to their will as much as possible.

Which is why I was completely unsurprised at the news today that, because the six top teams at the top of the English pyramid don’t really want to have them any more, the FA announced that FA Cup fifth round replays will be a thing of the past starting this season. Those big six clubs objected to the fixture congestion that a fifth round replay would potentially cause, with all six competing in Europe and with a midweek round of Premier League games at the end of February.

This season’s fifth round is scheduled for the weekend of February 16 and 17, and while the big six do have a point about fixture congestion, there are two pushbacks to that:

1. Matches can be rescheduled, particularly league matches. That midweek PL round can be rescheduled for later in the season if necessary, particularly if a team doesn’t advance in their European competition;

2. There are more than six clubs in the FA Cup, and a lot of the smaller clubs in the Cup rely on income from that competition to pay their bills. Replays are an inconvenience for a billion-dollar business like a Manchester club, Chelsea, Arsenal, or the like, but for an Ebbsfleet United or other small club, if they manage to take a game to a replay, that’s extra operating cash that could prove essential to their existence.

I know that it’s probably very quaint and retro to care about what happens to a small club, but I very much do. Not everything in the game needs to be tilted towards the rich getting richer all the time, and the fact that just over six percent of clubs in a national structure can say “nah, I’d rather not” and just like that influence policy pyramid-wide is as depressing as it is predictable.

There will still be replays in the third and fourth rounds, for now, but give it a year or two and I bet the Big Six will suck the soul completely out of the competition by deciding they don’t want those either.