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FA Cup third round attendances: Has interest in the cup ever been lower?

With FA Cup third round attendances raising eyebrows across the internet, we ask the question ‘Has interest in the FA Cup ever been lower?'

Many years ago, the FA Cup third round was considered one of the highlights in the football calendar. It was an action-packed weekend of football, largely played over one day or two days at most, that football supporters up and down the country looked forward to as much as anything else.

Before Sky made live football on television the norm, the FA Cup was often the only way to watch live football at home. The final itself was considered the biggest football match of the season and the winners were put on equal footing to the league champions. Where did it all go wrong?

Fa Cup semi finals at Wembley
Fa Cup semi finals at Wembley have helped to diminish the value of the FA Cup – Photo by Icon sport

When did the FA Cup become devalued?

According to many football historians, the slow death of the FA Cup began in 1999 when Manchester United elected to play in the FIFA World Club Cup instead of defending the trophy.

The matter was never as simple as that, and contrary to popular belief it was actually the Football Association that urged United to compete for the FIFA World Club Cup instead of playing in English football's oldest competition rather than Ferguson and his team defecting.

It was the inaugural year of the FIFA World Club Cup and United wanted to become the first club team in history to be able to call themselves world champions. Meanwhile, the FA believed that United's participation in the event would stand them in good stead in their hopes of hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2006.

In the end, United became world champions but England lost out to Germany in the bidding stakes. Beyond everything, though, this was the first indication that the English FA and English football clubs were prepared to pick greed and glory over supporter's interests. Man Utd fans wanted their team to still play in the FA Cup but their voices counted for nothing.

Has putting supporters second killed the cup?

Over the subsequent 25 years, the cup has become more and more detached from football supporters and it is no surprise that no one cares all that much for it anymore. Take this season's third round as a prime example – Crystal Palace and Everton were inexplicably the TV pick for Thursday night which meant the travelling Everton fans had to make a nine-hour round trip on a weeknight to attend the match.

This is now just accepted as the norm because it happens each season. Even the final is now often played in the evening to allow overseas broadcasters a favourable kick off time in their local time zones. While this isn't a major problem for London-based teams, it is for Nothern-based sides whose supporters are often unable to get the last train back from Euston after the match.

Having FA Cup semi-finals at Wembley also hasn't helped matters with the only explanation for these fixtures still being played at the home of football being greed. Meanwhile, fifth-round ties are now played on a midweek slot to appease moaning managers while replays are becoming more and more rare in a bitter blow to lower league clubs and fans who used to thrive off such an opportunity.

FA Cup third round attendances
The London Stadium was one of the few sell outs this weekend – Photo by Icon sport

FA Cup third round attendances: Empty seats all weekend

Across the 32 FA Cup third round ties this weekend, empty seats could be seen all over the country illustrating that matchgoing fans have fallen out of love with the competition. QPR welcomed Premier League side, Bournemouth, to Loftus Road on Saturday but only 10,000 supporters turned up to the 18,000-seater stadium.

In the midlands, only 16,345 West Brom fans attended the Hawthorns to see their side beat Aldershot 4-1. This is 10,000 below capacity and 9,000 less than the number who attended the Baggies' previous home fixture against Leeds United in the Championship.

Up north, Middlesbrough welcomed the second-best team in England this season, Aston Villa, to the Riverside Stadium but only 25,000 supporters turned up. This is 9,000 below the capacity at the Riverside and 6,000 fewer supporters than the number who attended Boro's previous Championship home fixture with Coventry City.

This isn't a north/south issue, this is an issue across the country and across the divisions in English football and we may already be past the point of no return.

Is there a way to bring the magic of the FA Cup back?

The FA Cup third round attendances tell us what we already know – the FA Cup is no longer a big deal to football fans. Here are four possible ways to bring the magic back:

  • Ensure all matches are played on a Saturday or a Sunday.
  • Allocate kick off times appropriately with travelling supporters the priority.
  • A £25 cap on all adult tickets for FA Cup fixtures.
  • Play the FA Cup semi finals at a neutral venue.

Andy Delaney

Andy is a freelance sports writer with ten years of experience covering major sporting events across Europe. He has also been a season ticket holder at Old Trafford since 2008 and has visited over 40 football stadiums in the United Kingdom and abroad following the Reds.

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