In the week following Valentine’s Day, the much-vaunted romance of the FA Cup appeared to experience something of a rekindling. While the fire in the loins of the world’s oldest football competition was subsequently dampened by “Pie-gate” (as to which, Sports Shorts’ thoughts are here), the FA Cup quarter-finals will see their first non-league representative since 1914 following Lincoln City’s defeat of Burnley at Turf Moor. Together with Sutton United’s courageous efforts against an Arsenal side 105 places above them in the league pyramid and Millwall’s humbling of three Premier League sides in the last three rounds, there appears to be life in the old competition yet.

Despite this, the FA Cup’s detractors still point to the fact that many clubs treat the competition with a lack of respect, playing reserve or youth team players until they reach the latter stages of the tournament, at which point full strength teams are picked. Long gone are the days when elite clubs would pick their strongest teams in the early rounds of the competition. While Arsenal fielded a strong (albeit not first-choice) eleven against Sutton, Southampton were eliminated in the previous round after playing a first eleven lacking any recognisable first team players. Southampton’s team selection raised a number of eyebrows in the football world. At the time of the Fourth Round fixtures, Southampton were safely ensconced in mid-table safety and had already qualified for the EFL Cup Final. What would be its reason for picking a weakened team?

The reasons for a club making such selection choices may be myriad: the club’s focus may lie on the league, particularly in light of the vast sums payable to Premier League clubs as a result of the recent TV deals; it may wish to rest players ahead of an upcoming European fixture; it may see the FA Cup as an opportunity to blood talented but inexperienced youngsters; and it may wish to give experienced reserve players an opportunity to play ninety minutes. In some cases, the rationale may be a combination of the above factors.

Yet the prerogative afforded to a manager in making his team selection is not absolute. The Rules of the FA Cup state that:

“Each team participating in a match shall represent the full available strength of each competing Club.”

The purpose of such a rule is clear. The integrity of sporting competition is of vital importance and one of the primary objectives of a sports governing body is to ensure that matches arranged under its auspices are fairly fought. This helps to guarantee the probity of the spectacle and protects against the pernicious influence of match and spot-fixing.

As a result, similar rules are common across other football competitions. For example:

“In every League Match each participating Club shall field a full strength team.”

“Each EFL Club shall play its full available strength in and during all Matches. The League will from time to time issue a policy as to what constitutes ‘full available strength’. Any Club failing to meet this requirement will be required to pay a fine of up to £5,000.”

  • Article 6.01(a) of the UEFA Champions League Regulations (2016-2017 edition) states that:

“On entering the competition, participating clubs agree to play in the competition until their elimination and to field their strongest team throughout the competition.”

Further, many rules and regulations contain a general requirement that a club acts in good faith. For instance, Rule B.16 of the Premier League Rules states that:

“In all matters and transactions relating to the League each Club shall behave towards each other Club and the League with the utmost good faith.”

It is arguable that a selection of an under-strength side contravenes such requirement, particularly in a league structure where other clubs are often dependent on their rivals’ results.

Yet the rules requiring a club to play a full strength team are very rarely enforced. Sanctions for such behaviour are the exception, rather than the norm:

  • The Premier League fined Blackpool £25,000 for fielding a weakened team in a league match in November 2011. That match saw then Blackpool manager Ian Holloway make 10 changes to the line-up fielded in the previous match. At the time, Holloway stated that: “We’ve got four games in 12 days and the lads I’ve played every week are struggling to keep up the level. Let them try and fine me, it’s an absolute disgrace. I’ll show the Premier League. We were a credit to football, and let the Premier League try to tell me otherwise.” Holloway reportedly argued that, because his players had been selected from a 25-man squad (as stipulated by the Premier League), a case for fielding an understrength could not be mounted against him. The Premier League disagreed and, perhaps because of the large number of changes made, imposed the £25,000 fine on Blackpool.
  • More recently, the English Football League (the “EFL”) fined twelve clubs a total of £60,000 for failing to field their strongest teams in the EFL Checkatrade Trophy. Those clubs included Luton, Bradford, Portsmouth, Blackpool, Bristol Rovers, MK Dons, Millwall, Peterborough, Sheffield United, Southend and Fleetwood. A statement from the EFL stated that:

“All of the offences punished were due to a failure to meet competition rule 7.3 of fielding a full-strength team in and during all matches. The EFL did take into account a number of mitigating factors and also considered transgressions that were not within the spirit of the rules.

The full-strength policy for the season 2016-2017 competition was five of the starting line-up must have started the previous or following game (a reduction from six in season 2015-2016) or five of the starting 11 who have made the most starting appearances in the League and domestic cup competitions fixtures during the current season.

Invited category 1 clubs were asked to follow a different set of criteria, with 6 of the starting 11 required to be under-21 as of June 30, 2016. None of the invited clubs failed to comply.”

In the case of the EFL Checkatrade Trophy, the guidance provided to clubs was clear. In such circumstances, a club can have no complaints if it has failed to comply with the terms of the full-strength policy. This was conceded by Luton Town’s Chief Executive, Gary Sweet:

“We entered those teams with our eyes wide open and we accept that we would be fined for doing so.”

In cases where there is no guidance to the general prohibition, there is bound to be a degree of uncertainty as to what will constitute permissible squad rotation and what will constitute the fielding of an unacceptably understrength side. In the Premier League, the latter is likely to be a fairly rare occurrence. The past few years have seen the truncation in the quality between top and bottom of the league. As such, almost every match has something riding on it for the clubs involved, particularly when relegation to the Championship results in clubs missing out on significant financial sums (parachute payments aside).

The FA Cup is a different matter. As a result of the financial sums on offer in the Premier League, the FA Cup is of increasingly secondary (or tertiary) importance to Premier League clubs. The primacy of the Premier League applies as much as to clubs that are trying to reach the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League (both of which are lucrative in their own right) as it does to clubs that are simply seeking to stay in the division. Yet, at present, there appears no deterrent to clubs picking second-string teams in the FA Cup. Unless and until the Rules of the FA Cup are actively enforced to uphold the requirement for clubs to play full strength sides through the imposition of sanctions, the majority of elite clubs will surely continue to field understrength sides until the latter stages of the competition.

This is not to say that this will happen in every FA Cup match, as shown by Arsenal and Sutton earlier this week. Likewise, it is not to say that playing against second string sides denudes the competition of all romance; players at lower league clubs will nonetheless have the opportunity to play in famous stadia in front of significantly larger crowds than would usually be the case and ties against bigger clubs will continue to be important for the continued financial stability of smaller clubs.

The position is therefore more nuanced than may be apparent upon first consideration. As a result, a club’s approach will differ from game to game and from season to season. It is not a simple case of saying that clubs do not care about the FA Cup anymore. They do. They also care about financial stability and about other competitions. Perhaps when it comes to the romance of the FA Cup, love will simply have to find a way.