Four Premier Leagues sides will be involved in replays over the Premier League’s first ever winter break. And Liverpool’s participation in a replay prompted an extraordinary statement from Jurgen Klopp, who told reporters neither he nor the entire first team squad would be involved in the replay, in order to fully utilise the winter break. I don’t think anyone has ever said anything to that effect in the history of English football. Some pointed to this as proof of how unimportant the F.A. Cup has become to the top flight clubs, more interested in maintaining their league status or a European qualification spot. After their 1-1 draw, both Jose Mourinho and Ralph Hassenhüttl called for cup replays to be scrapped. Steve Bruce has criticised the fact that his Newcastle side’s replay against Oxford will be played during the new winter break. So, now the question has to be asked; is it time to scrap F.A. Cup replays?
The main complaint against them is that it adds another game to the fixture list and increases the risk of injuries. That is true. Having more games to play does mean there is more risk of players suffering injuries through wear and tear. However, if you want to progress and not have to play a replay then maybe you should have picked a stronger team to make sure that you win the game. Frank Lampard made eight changes from the Chelsea side that started against Arsenal last Tuesday. Not without some alarm, but they managed to win the game 2-1 and see themselves into the draw for the fifth round. Liverpool made a similar number of changes for their game against Shrewsbury and surrendered a two-goal lead. If it’s anyone’s fault they have to play a replay, it’s theirs for not getting the job done at the first time of asking.
Whatsmore, the fact that it adds another game to the fixture list is neither here nor there. Football League sides have to play eight more league games than Premier League sides for a start. Add a decent cup run in both domestic knockout competitions and you’re looking at 50 plus games a season. And these sides aren’t in a position to rotate their sides so much that fans are asking each other ‘who’s that guy, I’ve never heard of him.’ They’re operating with much tighter monetary limits and smaller squads. Oxford United will play nine games over February. That’s every Saturday and Tuesday, depending on the date of the replay against Newcastle. No Premier League team has a schedule that busy, at any time of the year. Furthermore, having a replay at a Premier League ground is often a boon for these clubs, to get some extra cash in the coffers. Some of these clubs are really struggling for funds and a decent cup run with a game against a Premier League side can really help their finances, especially if they can get a draw and force a replay.
I think the F.A. has done all it needed to do to facilitate a break in the Premier League season. It did away with fifth round replays, instead the games will go straight to extra-time and penalties if needed. It also moved the fifth-round schedule to midweek to give the Premier League sides a full two weeks. The Premier League sides were warned that the fourth-round replays, should they be needed, would be held during the winter break. They hold no blame here.
For Klopp to throw this game aside so casually is an affront to the competition. The F.A. Cup is special, to so many millions of football fans around the world. The competition that has seen upsets galore and fabulous goals, the oldest knockout competition in the world. I’ve had my opinion of a season changed a huge amount because Chelsea won the F.A. Cup. It turned what had been a pretty average season under Antonio Conte in 2017-18 into a successful one. I was really disappointed Chelsea didn’t get further in last season’s competition. Wimbledon fans have wonderful memories in the cup. Even Liverpool have those types of memories from the F.A. Cup with Gerrard’s final.
Jurgen Klopp can pick whatever team he likes for the replay against Shrewsbury. It is his right as manager to pick the side, and if he feels his key players are playing too many games then he is well within his right to rotate his squad. But he should be taking charge of that fixture, regardless of his personal feelings about it clashing with the winter break. He is the first-team manager at Liverpool Football Club and this is a first-team game whether he judges it to be or not. I, as a fan, would consider it a breach of his obligations for him not to take charge of the replay.
The F.A. needs to put its foot down. Klopp has taken his disrespect for the F.A. Cup and the lower league clubs of England too far.