Jürgen Klopp’s approach to replays waters down delights of the FA Cup

Paul MacInnes

Jürgen Klopp’s halo slipped a bit on Sunday night. Having watched a reserve Liverpool side get overrun by Shrewsbury and throw away a two-goal lead into the bargain, Klopp used his post-match remarks to threaten another scratch team as he zoned in on a recurring topic – fixture congestion. The replay with Shrewsbury, he said, ran contrary to the spirit of the Premier League’s new winter break.

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“I said to the boys already two weeks ago that we will have a winter break, which means we will not be there [at the replay],” Klopp said. He then cited a letter from the Premier League that asked clubs not to arrange extra matches during the break so as to give players a rest from the “physical and mental rigours” of top-flight football. “The Premier League asked us to respect the winter break. That’s what we do. If the FA doesn’t respect that, then we cannot change it. We will not be there.”

Now Klopp is being cheeky there. That letter was not talking about FA Cup replays. It was talking about friendlies with Real Madrid reserves in the Qatar Aspire Academy. Furthermore Premier League clubs knew precisely what they were getting when they agreed to the new structure. The FA even reminded them that replays might fall during the winter break in a letter at the start of the season.

In all likelihood Klopp simply overreacted on Sunday, caught in the heat of the moment after a chastening result. Despite his protests, the team he picks for the replay might not be noticeably ‘weaker’ than the one that dumped out Everton in the third round. Who knows, he may even make it to Anfield himself. But whether it be Klopp, or Pep Guardiola (“maybe we could cancel the replays,” the Spaniard thought out loud last week) or any number of talking heads adjacent to the game, there is a common song being sung, one which seems intent on casting the FA Cup as an outmoded extravagance.

The argument goes: the FA Cup used to be the highlight of the football calendar but now, for the big teams, it is not, so let it be binned (or simply meddled with, while binning the Carabao Cup instead). It is a powerful argument, one supported by the lacklustre attendance at grounds like the Etihad and Turf Moor this past weekend. It is even more persuasive if the views and preferences of 95% of clubs in the country are not taken into account.

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For teams in Leagues One and Two there is no argument that the funds provided by a decent FA Cup run can make the difference between balancing the books or seeing them crash to the floor. Money aside, the occasion of being drawn against a team higher up the pyramid for a winner-takes-all fixture is a proper thrill for pretty much every team outside the top flight and that goes for non-league teams too. This is especially the case for the match-going fan. Coventry against Birmingham City at the weekend may not have been much of a match but it was definitely an occasion.

Such points of view do not get heard much, no doubt for the same reasons that the EFL’s TV rights are bought by Quest (no disrespect intended) and not Amazon. The Premier League is one of the biggest entertainments on earth and has the eyeballs to prove it.

But the Premier League is not all of football and its interests rarely align with the rest of the game. The FA Cup is not only a great tradition; it remains a truly egalitarian competition that gives the most unlikely clubs exposure, cash and a chance to dream. It will be missed when it has gone.