Why this FA Cup matters and why it doesn't
We all know the narrative. The FA Cup is the oldest living football competition on the planet. It’s also the largest.
Wanderers won the initial Challenge Cup, the FA’s formal name for the competition to which all its members are invited, in 1872. The inaugural tournament only required 13 matches. This season, 737 clubs entered. Fair to say, it was a little more lengthy.
Some people respect the FA Cup’s tradition. They shake their heads sadly at the back seat to which it has been reassigned. Others roll their eyes. They live in a ‘what have you done for me lately’ world. Legacy is irrelevant; only the money on offer for their elite Premier League clubs matters.
Show me the money
That said, the FA Cup remains an important competition, just not the most important in English football. The winner between Manchester United and Chelsea will bank £3.36 million pounds when you add their winnings from each round entered then round up to the nearest £10,000. The loser takes home £2.46 million.
By comparison, Leicester City walked away with £71.3 million from their 2016/17 Champions League adventure. The Foxes’ haul was second-most behind runners-up Juventus and slightly more than winners Real Madrid because television revenues by country are factored into the prize pool. If you were Pep Guardiola, would you be more concerned about losing out to Wigan in the FA Cup 5th Round or to Liverpool in the Champions League quarterfinal? In the end, the Catalan managed both, but you get the point. He had to explain the latter at greater length to his oil-rich employer.
Given then that the FA Cup purse isn’t going to rescue either side from Financial Fair Play troubles, the trophy will be all there is to appease ownership, media, and fans regarding either Chelsea or United’s season. For the managers? One will try to brandish it as evidence of success. In truth, it’s irrelevant to either’s status.
Until a few weeks ago, the Blues were defending Premier League champions. You wouldn’t have been able to tell by their performance. The club was inconsistent on the pitch, at each other’s throats in the boardroom.
That can all be attributed to Antonio Conte’s failed power play. Call it naivete or arrogance, but the Italian should have done his homework regarding the Stamford Bridge hierarchy. He had no business thinking he could come in and dictate policy given the club’s history under Roman Abramovich. More [and less] accomplished managers than him have come and gone. From Carlo Ancelotti down to Roberto di Matteo, they were all replaceable labour, not critical assets.
Conte failed to establish his authority in both directions. Jettisoning his most effective scorer to be rid of Diego Costa's distracting antics was meant to show the remaining squad who was boss. Instead, it made other key figures, such as David Luiz, Gary Cahill and Cesc Fabregas wonder just who Conte thought he was?
Fabregas proved a professional, giving his all for the club despite tensions with the boss. Cahill has worked his way back into the squad, as well, just in time for inclusion in Gareth Southgate’s England World Cup squad. Luiz is still banished to the bench although Olivier Giroud’s recent goal celebration, in which he ran madly past Conte and into the player’s box to embrace the Brazilian, reveals the divide in the dressing room.
Trying to bully Abramovich and his representatives in the press to secure a larger transfer kitty was even less endearing and effective. Despite Conte’s public calls for premium talent, the club bought for value. And they weren’t wrong. While Liverpool is the flavour of the month as the club most likely to end Manchester City’s title reign in 2018/19, it bears remembering how Conte picked up the pieces from Jose Mourinho’s similar meltdown to carry what was essentially the Portuguese's squad back to the top. A new man, if he is the right one, could do it again with Conte's.
Long story short, winning the FA Cup isn’t going to heal the rift between Conte and Chelsea. It will just serve as another positive entry on the former Juventus and Azzurri boss’ CV.
If you were presented with two anonymous psychological profiles, you might have trouble determining which belonged to Conte and which to Jose Mourinho. The two bosses are not dissimilar in their philosophies and tactics, nor in personality. Mourinho also seeks to advance his agenda through the press. He too feuds with players despite or maybe in spite of their skills. Neither is likely to change anytime soon.
Mourinho has been on the outs with at least two if not three of his original signings since coming to Old Trafford. Henrikh Mkhitaryan is gone. Paul Pogba has been cowed. Recently, rumours emerged there were issues between the manager and Eric Bailly.
In Mourinho’s second season, United have improved in a small way but regressed in more visible ones. The problem is the fanbase does not do small. Entitled an attitude as it is, they demand greatness from their club and manager.
Finishing in the top two for the first time since Fergie while scoring more and conceding less isn’t good enough. Not when the Red Devils finished 19 points behind the noisy neighbours. Not when they will at best win one trophy this season after capturing two and the Community Shield in 2016/17. Not when they sat back and allowed Sevilla to dump them out of the Champions League, keeping in mind that upset was the last win, followed by five losses and four draws, for the Rojiblancos in Vincenzo Montella’s short reign. Not when they keep losing to bottom-half sides in the Premier League.
For all that, Mourinho is in an entirely different situation than Conte. He has the United board’s full support. He can treat any player as he pleases and they will spend, spend, spend on whoever he identifies as a necessary addition. They will do so whether or not he wins the FA Cup. He has complete job security in a profession notorious for the lack thereof.
It needs an ending
If money isn’t a factor in the FA Cup, if neither manager’s job depends on lifting the trophy, and if neither fan base values the competition as much as the Premier or Champions League, why is the game worth watching?
The short answer is that everyone loves a good story and every good story is defined by its ending. The rivalry between Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte has been a compelling story since the Italian took over Chelsea and the Portuguese came to Manchester United. It needs the ending that only a prestigious trophy like the FA Cup can provide.
However much Mourinho brown-noses United supporters, he is a Chelsea man. It is his club. If English football had a Hall of Fame like American sports, Mou would be inducted in a Blues kit. There’s been a divorce, two in fact, but much like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, the starstruck lovers might very well reunite again. Chelsea fans love him. He can’t speak the words while in a new relationship, but he loves them.
Mourinho was forced to watch from afar while Conte sidled in, slipped his arm around the waist of Jose’s beloved supporters, and courted them with a Premier League title. Now that the romance has died, he would love nothing better than to drive the final nail into its coffin.
For his part, Conte knows it’s over. There is nothing to be salvaged. Before he exits, however, it would give him ultimate satisfaction to leave no way back for that “little man” who came before him.
Money isn’t on the line. Nor is pride. Both these passionate managers desperately want to win out of spite for the other. And who doesn’t like a good catfight?