Reading striker, Dave Kitson launched a scathing attack on the FA Cup ahead of his team’s 3rd Round Tie against Tottenham Hotspur. “We are not going to win the FA Cup and I do not give two shits about it, to be honest with you,” he said. “I care about staying in the Premier League, as does everybody at this club. Our league status is not protected by winning the FA Cup – simple as that.”
The League Cup has generally been regarded as bottom of the pile, with the top four teams typically playing a second string team in at least the early rounds of the competition. Now the question has arisen over whether the FA Cup is being regarded in a similar way.
United were arguably the first team to bring about that question, after withdrawing from the competition the season following the Treble. It is an issue which brings some flack to the club even now. Did Manchester United really think they were too big for the FA Cup?
Before the final decision had been made to withdraw, our chairman, Martin Edwards, admitted we were in an “impossible situation”, with the FA and Government putting pressure on us to play in the World Club Championship in Brazil to aid England’s 2006 World Cup bid. The competition was the bright idea of FIFA President Sepp Blatter and for United to shun their place in the tournament would dent England’s World Cup hopes. Pulling out of the FA Cup would be the only way United could compete in Brazil as well as maintaining their title and Champions League campaigns. “Going to Brazil will mean rearranging two Premier League matches and if we go all the way in Europe the only spare dates will be for FA Cup games and replays,” said Edwards.
The irony of United being the team the FA were now relying on doesn’t need to be addressed here, but we were certainly put in an awkward situation. It should not have been our responsibility to bail the FA out and we shouldn’t have been placed in a position where we were damned if we did, and damned if we didn’t. “Really it’s a no-win situation,” Edwards continued. “It will help the 2006 World Cup bid if we go, and the Government and the FA are obviously very keen that we go. But if we pull out of the FA Cup that will disappoint our own supporters. We’re going to get criticised, whatever we do.”
The pressure was really on us when Sports Minister, Tony Banks, came out and said, “it is my estimation that a failure by Manchester United to go to the new competition in Brazil – particularly if they were replaced by Bayern Munich – would do irreparable damage to our 2006 campaign. It is important for Manchester United – as perhaps the world’s most famous club – to hold the standard for England and Europe. These are extraordinary circumstances and it is an extraordinary decision to allow them to be exempt from next year’s FA Cup. But it is for one season and I do hope Manchester United supporters will realise the significance of what they and Manchester United are being asked to do.”
The FA’s interim executive director, David Davies, echoed this viewpoint, saying “it would send the worst possible signal to world football at a time when we are in the midst of the 2006 bid to turn our backs on this tournament.” Suddenly, United had become an ‘us’ for this country, United were representing England, and it was looking more and more certain that we had little say in the decision.
Sir Alex Ferguson proposed an idea which would allow United to enter the competition at the Fourth Round, meaning they could fulfil their obligations in Brazil, without pulling out of the FA Cup all together. This was rejected by the FA.
Criticism of the FA’s behaviour mounted, with David Sadler, secretary of United’s former players’ association, just one of many who slammed the behaviour of the FA. “You don’t like to use the word `blackmail’ but it seems there is something of that behind this,” he said. “England’s World Cup bid should stand or fall on what we have to offer in terms of staging the event.” Andy Walsh, the Chairman of IMUSA, continued on the argument, saying “this is not Manchester United saying they do not want to play in the FA Cup. This is the FA willing to sacrifice the oldest domestic cup competition in the world at the high altar of TV revenues. This move has more to do with world football politics than Manchester United being offered an opportunity – as David Davies has put it. I doubt if the same opportunity would have been offered if England weren’t making the bid to host the 2006 World Cup. It just shows the FA are willing to sacrifice anything to secure the 2006 World Cup. What happens if Sepp Blatter decides in 12 months time that the championship should be extended to three to four weeks – are the FA going to say sacrifice the Premier League as well?” He then continued to express the knock on effects put on the fans and United’s desire to defend the Treble. “As football fans we want to go to all the games, but if this tournament goes ahead very few will go,” he added. “Alex Ferguson already said before the Champions League Final that he didn’t want to play in this World Championship, but now undue pressure is being brought to bear by the FA and the Government. Alex Ferguson has said he wants to defend the Treble, but he won’t be able to fulfil that wish because of the FA’s insistence.”
When a new Sports Minister was appointed, Kate Hoey, it appeared as though maybe there could be a rethink of the situation. Banks had been extremely keen for us to go to Brazil, putting considerable pressure on us, whereas Hoey was fighting our corner. Despite being an avid Arsenal fan, she launched an attack on the FA’s decision in our favour, saying, “I think it is absolutely imperative that Manchester United play in the FA Cup. The people I really criticise are the FA. The FA can still put matters right by saying to Manchester United they must play in the FA Cup.”
However, despite all the initial criticism of the FA and government, this incident is remembered as Manchester United’s decision to snub the FA Cup. United have been criticised of being arrogant and disrespectful, as the press quickly turned from blaming the FA to criticising United. To this day, the action of the FA and government is almost entirely overlooked, with United the ones who are slammed for taking part in a tournament they didn’t care about. United were getting too big for their boots, it was claimed, shunning the opportunity to play in one of the most historical and worthy competition in World football for what appeared to be a pointless excursion in Brazil. “I find their decision to withdraw from the cup incomprehensible and astonishing,” said the Bradford City Chairman, Geoffrey Richmond, ahead of his side’s FA Cup Third Round match. “Every small club wants to be drawn at Old Trafford and enjoy the magic of the day. It is a dream for everyone. That dream, that magic has been taken away by Manchester United not taking part. I cannot understand why they made that decision. It is fundamentally flawed and the FA should have taken a strong line. I would have said to them ‘OK you are refusing to take part so what we will do is to stop you taking part in next season’s FA Cup as punishment’.”
The FA and Government had skulked in to the shadows, washing their hands of the decision, and leaving United to take the flack. They were all too happy to come up smelling of roses, laying the blame on United’s doorstep. “I am just amazed that they have actually treated their supporters in what I would say was quite a shabby way,” Hoey said, unsurprisingly backtracking on her earlier criticism of the FA. Suddenly, it was now United she blamed, exhibiting cowardice we should have been none too surprised to witness.
Martin Edwards responded furiously to the Gunner’s claims, saying “For a new sports minister to suddenly enter the arena at this late stage and tell us we are treating our supporters shabbily and should go back in the FA Cup is a disgrace. I suggest she does her homework and I suggest the government gets its act together, because we did this in support of the last sports minister.”
A year goes by, wherein we see England fail in their bid for the World Cup 2006 and United drop out helplessly of the World Club Championship. All that fuss for nothing. We were Champions again, however, which was more than enough compensation for us, despite being disappointed at not even having the chance to defend our title as FA Cup holders. At this time, Alex Ferguson reflected on the decision for United to go to Brazil, and the shambolic behaviour of the FA and Government.
“The pressure applied to persuade us to take part in Brazil was so strong we were made to feel it was a patriotic duty to go to South America,” said Ferguson. “Perhaps we should not have been too surprised to find that the men from the FA and Government who orchestrated that pressure somehow faded into the background, and behaved like mere bystanders once the media fastened on to the issue and it became clear that the absence of the trophy holders from the oldest knockout competition in football was being treated as a national scandal. All the quiet promises of official backing evaporated and we were left on our own as the convenient villains of the piece.” Ferguson went on to state that nobody at United had been interested in going to Brazil and were all too keen to participate in the FA Cup. “The truth is that I feel deeply for the FA Cup and the notion I would willingly belittle the competition is crazy. To the best of my knowledge, initially nobody at Manchester United was interested in going to Brazil. I have to say I was disappointed by how the FA and Government reacted, or failed to react, to the trouble their intervention stirred up around our heads. When all the flak was flying nothing was heard. How could they distance themselves like that?”
Old Trafford spokesman Ken Ramsden backed Fergie up, saying “we have always taken the view that it was a one-off situation. People should not lose sight of the fact that the FA and the Government were very keen for us to go to Brazil. We were representing the country as European champions, while we were also asked to go because it would help England’s 2006 World Cup bid. We just hope steps can be taken so that no club finds itself in the invidious position we did.”
Since then, United have appeared in three FA Cup finals, and on each occasion there was mention of ‘our’ decision to pull out of the FA Cup in 2000. On Saturday, United booked their place in the Fourth Round after seeing off Villa, again, at Villa Park. After the game, Rio Ferdinand strengthened United’s insistence that the FA Cup is important to us, after being questioned on the subject. “You hear some funny quotes coming out from some people saying they don’t care about this competition,” said Ferdinand. “Manchester United go into competitions to win them. It is just a natural winning mentality to want to go out and win every game you play. Most players are like that. I have not got it inside me to to say I want to win this game but not that one. If you do that, you won’t do yourself justice, or the team, the club or the fans.” Well said, Rio. Still, I’d rather the Premiership and the European Cup!
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