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Cutting out FA Cup replays makes giant killings more likely

Football stats and philosophy from Kevin Pullein

Sutton United's Tony Rains and Matthew Hanlan celebrate after their 1989 FA Cup victory over Coventry City at Gander Green Lane
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David felled Goliath with his first slingshot. If he had missed and the fight had lasted longer he would probably have lost. In sport too an outsider is more likely to beat a favourite if the contest is short. With less playing time the better competitor has fewer opportunities to demonstrate their superiority.

Over the next four days FA Cup fifth-round ties could be shorter than they would have been in previous seasons. If a match is drawn it will go to extra-time and penalties – rather than to a replay on the other team’s ground followed there, if the scores are still level, by extra-time and penalties.

This makes a difference, as we shall see, especially when lower- division teams play at home to higher-division opponents.

The FA abolished replays for the final and semi-finals 19 seasons ago, and for the sixth round two seasons ago.

In the fifth round this season QPR and Bristol City of the Sky Bet Championship will play at home to Watford and Wolves of the Premier League. Doncaster of League One will play at home to Crystal Palace of the Premier League.

Each of those home teams, I estimate, is six per cent more likely to reach the next round under the new arrangements than they would have been under the old arrangements.

When the FA began to do away with replays for ties at non-neutral venues – that is to say, before the semi-finals – some lower-division clubs complained. They said that if they drew at home to Premier League opponents they would miss out on a cash windfall from a replay. They would rather have more money, apparently, than a better chance of progressing.

We should not be critical of them, though. What has happened to the romance of the FA Cup, some will ask? It is harder to be romantic when you are poor.

QPR v Watford and Bristol City v Wolves seem to be fairly standard Championship v Premier League ties, Doncaster v Crystal Palace seems to be a fairly standard League One v Premier League tie.

For each tie I estimated what the chance would have been of the lower-division team reaching the next round under the old arrangements (which included the possibility of a replay). My answers were 27 per cent for QPR, also 27 per cent for Bristol City and 19 per cent for Doncaster.

Then I estimated the chance of the lower-division team reaching the next round under the new arrangements (which do not include the possibility of a replay). My answers are 33 per cent for QPR and Bristol City and 25 per cent for Doncaster.

In each case the lower-level side are six per cent more likely to progress now than they would have been before. This is because if the match is drawn they are much more likely to likely to win on their own ground with another 30 minutes of play and maybe penalties than they would have been on their opponents’ ground with another 90 or 120 minutes of play and maybe penalties.

If they were given the choice, QPR, Bristol City and Doncaster – and of course League Two Newport, who play at home to Premier League leaders Manchester City – should ask to go straight to a penalty shootout. Their next best option would be just extra-time followed by penalties. What they must accept is worse: a match followed by extra-time and penalties. But even that is better than the possibility of a replay.

The luck of the draw can turn ties and tournaments

Playing at home in the FA Cup is an advantage with or without the possibility of a replay. Over 90 minutes this team will always be more likely to beat that team on their own ground than on their opponents’ ground.

The chance of reaching the next round, and of going on to win the FA Cup, depends partly on when the ball with your number is drawn out – before or after the ball with your opponents’ number.

A Premier League team won the FA Cup in each of the last 20 seasons. Premier League teams play in up to four rounds at non-neutral venues – the third, fourth, fifth and sixth.

We know that playing at home helps. If it did not we should expect FA Cup winners overall to have as many away draws as home draws. In practice they have had more home draws.

None of the last 20 FA Cup winners had four away draws, three had four home draws. Four had three away draws, five had three home draws. Eight had two away draws and two home draws.

This is more or less what we should have anticipated from what we know about how often Premier League teams have knocked out each other and opponents from lower divisions and the fact that in rounds three, four, five and six each team are as likely to be drawn at home as away.

Given that information we should have anticipated one FA Cup winner with four away draws and two with four home draws, four with three away draws and six with three home draws, plus seven with two home draws and two away draws.

Teams with wholly or mostly favourable draws are more likely to progress than teams with wholly or mostly unfavourable draws. We should expect to see more of them win the FA Cup and we do.


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None of the last 20 FA Cup winners had four away draws but three had four home draws
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