EPL TALK: Stop whining, Pep Guardiola, there's no sympathy for fixture congestion after FA Cup replays scrapped

FA Cup changes are about ruthless finance, and the Manchester City manager should read the room before he alienates more fans

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola shouts on the touchline during the FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea at Wembley Stadium.
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola shouts on the touchline during the FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea at Wembley Stadium. (PHOTO: Ben Stansall/AFP)

ANOTHER Champions League defeat, another manic head rub and Pep Guardiola soon slipped effortlessly into caricature. There he was, the aristocrat moaning about a lack of legroom on his lifeboat as the toffs rowed away from the Titanic.

There are no violins small enough to do justice to the Manchester City manager’s petulant whining about fixture congestion, after reaching yet another FA Cup final in the age of oligarchs and American hedge fund bros carving up the silverware between them.

To recap, Guardiola is unhappy that his glittering squad - filled entirely with internationals, Treble winners and World Cup lifters – had to soldier on from a midweek defeat against Real Madrid to overcome Chelsea in their private billionaires’ club. Rather tactlessly, he referred to the “health” of his players, more than once. He had no idea how his players “survived” such “unacceptable” and “impossible” circumstances.

Considering current world events, these hysterical terms are not only tone-deaf, but irresponsible. Words matter. So does perspective. But Guardiola appears to have jettisoned the latter, rambling on about his health concerns for a squad talented enough to play a different starting XI every week. A little humility goes a long way, particularly with a club still facing 115 charges of financial doping.

Why on earth didn’t anyone take Guardiola aside and gently suggest that highlighting the woes of the world’s richest club might not play well in the same week that FA Cup replays were scrapped, a move that bolsters the haves and further weakens the have nots?

At face value, there is logic to scrapping all FA Cup replays. Settle every contest in a single encounter and ease the fixture suggestion across the board. Those advocating for the changes are keen to point out that the whimsical, giant-killing scenario of a lower league club rarely happens. In the last 10 years, 1,080 ties were played from the first to the fourth rounds. There were 228 replays, but 135 of those were in the first two rounds. Only a small proportion happened after the third round, i.e. when the English Premier League clubs entered the fray. According to Alan Shearer, a League One club or below going to an EPL venue in a replay only happens one-and-a-half times a season.

So scrap Singapore Sweep then, eh? Get rid of anything with miniscule odds of success, considering we’re now in the business of eviscerating hope. Abandon all long shots. Remove anything vaguely aspirational and focus only on binary statistics, because that’s what sport is all about, right? Just look at VAR and how much its intervention added to our enjoyment of the Manchester United-Coventry City game. It’s just facts, figures and humanoid bores with rulers now. There’s no space for daydreaming. No fantastical "what ifs". No hope.

Why pander to the unlikely prospect of a once-in-a-lifetime replay trip to Anfield for smaller clubs when it’s much easier to remove the distant carrot in the first place? Football serves an exclusive group of masters and hopeless romantics are not among them.

Even so, the romance of the FA Cup was never merely about David toppling Goliath. It was about the money, a chance for David to invest in something more than a catapult for next season. The idea that ruthless finance is crushing idealism is no less naïve. The FA Cup allowed English football to at least maintain the pretence of trickledown economics.

Not anymore.

Coventry fans during the FA Cup semi-final match against Manchester United at Wembley Stadium.
Coventry fans during the FA Cup semi-final match against Manchester United at Wembley Stadium. (PHOTO: Jacques Feeney/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

Greedy elite clubs risk being disliked by alienated fans

The FA Cup changes are about ruthless finance, just not the domestic, feel-good community kind. The Uefa Champions League will increase the number of matches next season, because after yet another campaign where the group stages were as dull as dishwater, a comatose TV audience was clearly clamouring for more nocturnal dross. The tournament will also swell from 32 to 36 clubs. Something had to give and that something was smaller clubs with the smallest voices.

The Premier League’s elite have received further encouragement for their wealth expansion plans, whilst simultaneously being rewarded for their ineptitude. Had Manchester United’s dreadful display against Coventry been replicated in an earlier round, the eighth-placed Championship side would’ve merited another day in the sun and an injection of cash, via a replay. Indeed, the very notion of a replay acknowledges the Corinthian spirit of fair play. The minnows get a second chance.

Not anymore.

Of course, the facile argument doing the rounds now is that teams like Coventry also play in long, debilitating campaigns - 46 games a season - and the new changes spare them additional fixtures, too. Because cash-strapped clubs at the bottom of the pyramid are always looking for ways to cut off additional revenue streams, eh?

Here’s a novel idea. How about a new FA Cup handicapping system, where an EPL team that fails to defeat an opponent from a lower division in 90 minutes automatically gets knocked out? At a stroke, replays are gone. Fixtures are reduced. The health and wellbeing of those fragile, billion-dollar squads will be protected and everyone else might witness a spectacle more aesthetically pleasing than the tepid fare offered by the Red Devils. Could that work?

Of course not, because those advocating for a reduced fixture list would be the first to complain if the fixture list was not weighted in their favour, because the same complainants now will say nothing when they embark upon their hectic pre-season programmes across the globe, because the same folks petitioning against a European Super League are strangely muted when it comes to protesting the English “super league” that already exists, a self-serving cabal using its financial might to shape the schedule in its favour.

Because Roy Keane was right yesterday. He said he was beginning to dislike Manchester United, for their lack of character on the pitch. But his comments were perceptive on a broader level. Elite clubs also risk being disliked, if they continue to pursue such a selfish agenda whilst bleating the moment something doesn’t go entirely their way. Disillusioned fans in the UK are already expressing their indifference to a competition that increasingly favours the few and cynicism is generally contagious.

If the Premier League’s elite clubs are determined to win the hearts, minds and wallets of their global audience, then show a smidgeon of solidarity, if not empathy, for those at the bottom of the food chain, fighting for ever-shrinking scraps. And for God’s sake, Guardiola, read the room.

Show a smidgeon of solidarity, if not empathy, for those at the bottom of the food chain, fighting for ever-shrinking scraps. And for God’s sake, Guardiola, read the room.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 28 books.

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