A Better FA Cup Format

We could easily have a better FA Cup. What I’m proposing is a way to…

  1. Seed the 3rd round so that every tie is between a ‘big team’ and one that’s battled through from the earlier stages;
  2. Spread the point at which the clubs from the EPL and EFL enter the tournament more evenly across the first three rounds, making the second round more significant and (as a bonus) adding a bit of spice to the Championship and to League One.

Here’s how.

I’m an FA Cup traditionalist, and I would not want to see huge changes in the format (and especially the ‘feel’) of the competition. I’ve hated the destruction of the Final as an event, by playing it at a stupid time and having it as the third fixture of the tournament to take place at Wembley. But elsewhere, it’s held up, and for a competition with over 700 clubs entering it, that’s not bad.

However, I think we can do better, with some fairly minor tweaks.

The number of fixtures in each round is currently as follows:

The chart shows how weighted the tournament is to the EPL and top EFL clubs. Over two-thirds of the clubs in the third round enter the tournament there: less than a third of the clubs in the third round come from all those matches above it.

And why are the EPL and EFL sides introduced in two great lumps anyway? Could we spread their introduction just a little more? Does the second round have to be such a non-event, with far fewer fixtures than the third round which follows it?

To me, the real magic of the FA Cup is in the third and fourth rounds, where a chance is given to tiny clubs to compete against the biggest in the land. One such tie can sustain a non-league club for years.

Can we have more of this? Well, yes. We could have every third round fixture played between one of the biggest clubs and a qualifier from earlier rounds. This would not require the draw for the third round to be particularly complicated, but it would produce a far more exciting outcome, and would avoid any all-Premier League clashes, which overshadow the round and are disliked by many fans. All we’d need to do is balance the number of ‘big clubs’ entering the tournament at this stage with the number of qualifiers.

Let’s get down to numbers.

At present, the third round stage sees 44 clubs enter the tournament from the Premier League and Championship. A meagre 20 clubs from the hundreds originally entering the tournament are allowed to join them. Why not make just a small change, so that the same number of clubs get parachuted in at that stage as qualify from the earlier rounds: 32 of each?

To do this, let’s look at making the season before into a qualifying campaign for the FA Cup. The 32 clubs entering the tournament in the third round could be reduced to be those from the Premier League the season before, and just the top half of the Championship.

And how would we get our 32 qualifiers to join them? Well, we could have an enlarged second round of 32 fixtures, made up of the 12 clubs who were in the bottom half of the Championship the season before (who would be entering the tournament a round earlier than at present); the 12 clubs who were in the top half of League One the season before (who would be entering the tournament a round later than at present); and 40 clubs from the first round.

And how would we get 40 fixtures in the first round? No problem – the round would be played by the 12 clubs who were in the bottom half of League One the season before; the 22 clubs who formed League Two the season before and didn’t get relegated; and 46 current non-league clubs from the qualifying rounds.

In summary then, the number of fixtures would be:

Fourth qualifying round: 46 fixtures
‘Competition Proper’
First round: 40 fixtures
Second round: 32 fixtures
Third round: 32 fixtures
Fourth round: 16 fixtures
etc.

Apart from making the numbers neater, splitting the top and bottom halves of League One and the Championship when giving teams byes to the following season’s second and third rounds would add a nice bit of competitiveness to the middle of the table in those two divisions at the end of their seasons. Finish 13th and you’ll start next season’s FA Cup a round earlier than the club that finishes 12th!

So, to summarise:

  1. The qualifying rounds of the FA Cup would be organised among the non-league pyramid so that the fourth (final) qualifying round has 46 fixtures; this should be straightforward enough.
  2. The 46 non-league clubs qualifying for the first round would be joined by the clubs finishing in the bottom half of League One the season before, as well as the whole of League Two from the season before, except for the two relegated clubs. The 12 clubs finishing in the top half of League One the season before would not now join the competition until the second round, a round later than at present.
  3. The 40 clubs then qualifying for the second round would be joined by the clubs finishing in the bottom half of the Championship the season before and those finishing in the top half of League One the season before. This would mean that the clubs finishing in the bottom half of the Championship the season before would join the competition a round earlier than at present.
  4. The 32 clubs then qualifying for the third round would be joined by the clubs finishing in the top half of the Championship the season before, as well as the whole of the Premier League from the season before.
  5. The third round draw would be formatted so that every tie would be between one of the 32 clubs qualifying from the second round and one of the 32 clubs entering the competition at that stage.

The main issue I can see with this plan is that with some League One teams starting in the first round and others in the second, and some Championship teams starting in the second round and others in the third, it could introduce a little complexity into scheduling league fixtures on first and second round days, when some teams would be unavailable for the league. However, this would not be insurmountable.