Though the upsets still come, Mills is correct: those Premier League teams eliminated this year, as is now generally the case, were lacking most — if not all — of their first-choice players, many of them rested for what the club decided were more important games. Palace made it through, narrowly, in front of 6,000 traveling Grimsby fans, but it did so having made nine changes from its last Premier League game.
Others cast the blame on the Football Association itself: for kick-starting the competition’s demise by allowing Manchester United to opt out in 2000, in favor of playing in that year’s Club World Cup in Brazil; for toying with various ideas — like abolishing replays of tied matches — to bow to the wishes of those Premier League clubs that see the Cup as an unwelcome distraction. This year, the F.A. was fiercely criticized for scheduling games at seemingly random times across the weekend to meet the demands of an international television deal, and using other matches as test runs for a video assistant referee system.
“It’s a wonderful thing, the F.A. Cup,” Holt said. “It needs protecting.”
Wherever the fault, the effects are obvious. At Burnley’s meeting with Barnsley, the Premier League hosts had tried to encourage more fans to come by reducing ticket prices to £10 for adults and £5 for children. Though the visiting team had brought a healthy contingent, Turf Moor, Burnley’s raucous stadium, was noticeably quieter than normal. Swaths of seats remained empty.
Elsewhere, there were weakened teams named not only by the Premier League’s giants and those battling to avoid relegation from the top flight, but by those, like Leicester City, caught in the middle, and with nothing much else to play for. The trend is now mainstream: Championship teams often name weakened sides, too; the prize money on offer even for winning the F.A. Cup pales in comparison to the king’s ransom promotion to the Premier League would bring.
Looked at from a distance, it is hard to see much magic left: teams of reserves contesting games they do not care about in front of half-empty stadiums, for the right to stay in a competition everyone involved sees as an afterthought.