Disappearing fans are not proof that FA Cup is losing its magic

Every season the debate is rekindled as to whether or not the FA Cup's lustre is being diminished by clubs' decreasing emphasis on doing well in the competition. Richard Sutcliffe reports.

The start of a New Year invariably brings with it a knocking of the FA Cup.

Falling attendances, managers opting to field reserve teams and the Cup having fallen down the list of priorities for most clubs all combine, come the first or second weekend of January, to provide ammunition for the critics.

This year has been no exception, with the Sunday newspapers falling over themselves to sound the death-knell for the world's oldest knockout competition.

Scratch a little below the surface, however, and the picture is not all doom and gloom. Okay, the FA Cup is not what it was. All the above are illustrations that some of the lustre has been lost but that is not to say the Cup can no longer excite and thrill supporters in equal measure.

Just ask Dean Hoyle, the chairman of Huddersfield Town who since Sunday's fourth-round draw has, in common with thousands of Terriers supporters, been able to look forward to a tie at either Arsenal or Leeds United.

The lifelong Huddersfield fan said: "I know it has become fashionable to have a go at the FA Cup but I don't agree. As a fan, I have always enjoyed the Cup.

"My favourite memory is probably when we had a couple of replays against Manchester City in front of big crowds before going out in 1988. It was the same season we lost 10-1 at Maine Road in the league, so it has stuck in my mind.

"We also played Chelsea away a couple of times recently, which gave us an opportunity to sample big time football in England. I also saw how much the 1,500 highly-charged Dover fans enjoyed Saturday (when the BlueSquare South club lost 2-0 at the Galpharm).

"Crowds are, on the whole, down compared to the league. Some of that could be down to the culture having changed in that a lot of fans have season tickets these days, meaning they don't buy on the day.

"In the Premier League, apart from the relegation battle and the title race, a lot of it can be quite boring. So when two Premier League clubs are drawn together then maybe it is not too attractive. It is much better for television to feature the minnows in the Cup.

"But you can't say the Cup is not an attraction any longer. The Leeds fans paid between 33 and 47 per ticket at Arsenal last Saturday so, when you also add in travel to London and so on, that represents a big commitment.

"It is also, let's not forget, a difficult financial climate out there. Despite that, Leeds still sold all their allocation.

"In terms of our club, the Cup this season will be important as it is an opportunity to bank some cash and help balance the books. You only have to look at Leeds for what the FA Cup can mean in terms of finance.

"Last year, they probably banked more than 1m from beating Manchester United live on television. I would imagine they will be getting something similar from the two Cup games against Arsenal this season."

With Lee Clark's side set to take on the winners of next Wednesday's replay between Leeds and Arsenal, Huddersfield can look forward to a significant cash injection of their own due to the fourth round tie being likely to take place in front of a full house regardless of whether at Elland Road or the Emirates Stadium.

He said: "This is a great draw for us. We are not particularly bothered who we play and wish both Leeds and Arsenal well for the replay.

"Getting into the fourth round is quite rare for Huddersfield so whoever we play will be a big occasion. We will be the underdogs, meaning we have nothing to lose."

Another chairman of a Yorkshire club who believes the Cup has come in for some unfair criticism in the past couple of days is Leeds United's Ken Bates.

He said: "A lot depends on the luck of the draw. In the third round, the ties that were attractive brought in big crowds – Arsenal v Leeds was a full house, while there were 75,000 at Manchester United v Liverpool.

"Stamford Bridge and White Hart Lane were also full on Sunday.

"If Everton and Newcastle United had been at home then I am sure the average crowd (for the third round) would have been even higher. That is what I mean by the luck of the draw. Instead, we had ties like Torquay v Carlisle and Crawley v Derby.

"We could have sold 20,000 tickets for the game at Arsenal and I would be very surprised if the replay is not a full house. We also sold out our club train to London and took around 50 coaches. That doesn't sound like a competition that no-one cares about."

Across Yorkshire, crowds were down for Saturday's Cup ties with Huddersfield's game against Dover being watched by almost 6,000 less than the club can expect for a league game – a drop that can be explained by the opposition being the lowest-ranked side still in the Cup at that stage.

At Hull City, meanwhile, the gate was less than half the size Nigel Pearson's side normally run out in front of in the Championship. Similarly, both Doncaster Rovers and Sheffield United hosted below average crowds for the visit of Wolves and Aston Villa respectively.

For Rovers chairman John Ryan, a huge fan of the Cup, the turnout of 8,616 for the 2-2 draw with Mick McCarthy's Premier League side was disappointing.

He said: "The FA Cup is still a great competition but it has lost something in terms of public perception. In the Premier League and Championship, it has been relegated below the league in terms of the priority.

"It is all very different to how it used to be. I remember going to Liverpool in 1974 and drawing

2-2. There were 23,000 back at Belle Vue for the replay but since those days the Cup has slipped down the rankings.

"There is just not as much glory in it as there was. Maybe a team has to get to the fifth or sixth round to really catch people's imagination. We dropped our prices and allowed season ticket holders to buy tickets for 15 but the crowd was still disappointing, particularly as it turned out to be a great game.

"I find it very difficult to understand and don't really know what can be done to change things. But, I still feel the Cup deserves its place in the football calendar."