‘An absolute disgrace’: decision to scrap FA Cup replays met with fury

<span>The Cray Valley Paper Mills manager, Steve McKimm, celebrates with a replica FA Cup after his side drew at Charlton this season to earn a replay.</span><span>Photograph: Steven Paston/PA</span>
The Cray Valley Paper Mills manager, Steve McKimm, celebrates with a replica FA Cup after his side drew at Charlton this season to earn a replay.Photograph: Steven Paston/PA

New changes to the format of the FA Cup, including an end to replays and the final being played during the league season, have been met with strong criticism with the decision-making process described as an “absolute disgrace”.

Replays are to be dropped from the first round onwards from next season and the final moved to the penultimate weekend of the Premier League campaign, as part of a deal agreed between the FA and Premier League. Mark Bullingham, the FA’s chief executive, said the agreement would secure “a strong format for the future” for a trophy that continues to generate the majority of the FA’s income. The Premier League is understood to have argued that change was necessary due to the expansion of European fixtures from next season. For smaller clubs that traditionally stood to benefit from replays, however, this perspective has not been shared.

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Mark Palios, a former chief executive of the FA and executive chair of League Two side Tranmere Rovers, was strongly critical of the changes. “The process is an absolute disgrace, a deal concocted in the corridors of power,” he said. “This is not just about the cash, it’s about the enjoyment experienced by fans of lower league clubs, who don’t get many high days and holidays. This deal reflects the unrestrained march of mammon in football and it will destroy the game.”

Palios’s sentiments were echoed by Fair Game, the coalition of clubs who want greater financial sustainability within English football. The CEO of Fair Game, Niall Couper, said: “Scrapping FA Cup replays from the first round proper deprives lower league clubs of a much-needed source of revenue. This is a short-sighted move that does nothing to strengthen the game. It is another nail in the coffin for the already crumbling football pyramid.”

Chris Wilder, the Sheffield United manager, said the new format suited the needs of the biggest clubs. “The game is dominated by the big boys, and the big boys don’t want FA Cup replays, do they?” he said. “There have been clubs that have had FA Cup runs and replays that have financially benefitted themselves for the next three, four, five years. I am a traditionalist and I would have liked to have seen it kept the same but the game is moving on with more minutes in a game and extra games that people are trying to push back against.”

Third round, 1972: Hereford United 2-1 Newcastle 
Ronnie Radford's famous 30-yard strike helps Hereford become the first non-league club to beat a top-flight side since 1949.

Fourth round, 2004: Tottenham 3-4 Manchester City
City produce an incredible comeback to beat Spurs at White Hart Lane with 10 men having trailed 3-0 at half-time.

Third round, 2015: West Ham 2-2 Everton (West Ham win 9-8 on penalties)
Perhaps most memorable for West Ham's goalkeeper Adrián taking centre stage, throwing his gloves to the ground before converting the winning penalty at the end of a marathon shootout and a topsy-turvy 120 minutes at the Boleyn Ground. Morgan Ofori

The FA’s own statistics show that, over the past decade, there have been 228 replays in the FA Cup, with 19 of those matches featuring an EFL club away at a Premier League side, and 12 of those matches taking place in front of crowds of over 25,000. That means at least one EFL club each year would ordinarily get a substantial financial benefit from a replay, but non-league clubs would stand to benefit further.

This season, Cray Valley PM, who play in step 4 of non-league, earned a home replay against League One Charlton Athletic in the first round of the Cup. According to their chair, Frank May, the outcome was transformative. “Getting a draw at Charlton and then losing on penalties would have not only denied our fans the euphoria they experienced but also benefits that the replay gave us”, he said. “A chance to get the club’s name ‘out there’, the chance for part-time players to pit their skills against the full-timers [again], and of course, the revenue. This money will be used to upgrade facilities at our ground to enable us to achieve a ground grading for Step 3 and to better prepare the stadium for any future visits from League clubs in the FA Cup. Denying lower league clubs the chance to get that feeling again shows just how out of touch the FA, and especially the Premier League, are with the non-league game.”

The EFL also expressed its disappointment at the decision, saying it had not been part of the bipartite agreement. “Whilst the League had previously been involved in discussions over the future of the calendar, these were predicated on the agreement of a new financial deal with the Premier League for EFL clubs which has not progressed,” the chief executive, Trevor Birch, said. “This is frustrating and disappointing given the calendar is a shared asset across football and as we have consistently said a whole game approach is required to find solutions to complex fixture scheduling challenges.”

The FA is understood to believe the long-term health of the FA Cup to be one of the organisation’s top priorities and agreed as part of the deal with the Premier League that the weekends around the fourth round, fifth round and quarter-finals would be left clear of any top-flight fixtures. Furthermore the fourth round will be stripped across six days while the late May bank holiday will be reserved for the EFL playoff finals. In a separate arrangement, the Premier League agreed to provide an extra £33m per year to support the grassroots game. “This new agreement between the FA and the Premier League strengthens the FA Cup and gives this very special tournament exclusive weekends in an increasingly busy calendar,” Bullingham said.

Further changes agreed between the FA and the Premier League and signed off by the Professional Game Board, which includes representatives from the EFL, included the elimination of the Premier League’s winter break, which was introduced to the competition in 2020. The start of the Premier League season is also to be pushed back to mid-August, leaving a longer summer break which the FA said was in line with “expert advice from medical and technical departments which values a longer period of complete rest in the summer rather than a short break in the winter”.