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Should managers be required by regulation to pick full-strength sides?

Football strategy illustration above floating football field
Friday, 03 March 2017 By Lloyd Thomas

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” (see here[1]), the FA Cup quarter-finals will see their first non-league representative since 1914[2] 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[3] 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[4]. Southampton’s team selection raised a number of eyebrows in the football world[5]. 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[6]; 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[7]:

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.

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Lloyd Thomas

Lloyd Thomas

Lloyd Thomas is an associate in Squire Patton Boggs’ Litigation department and is part of the Sports Law team based in its London office.

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