“It was easier back then,” Wolverhampton Wanderers manager Nuno Espírito Santo remarked when asked whether he is aware of the club’s history in the FA Cup, ahead of their quarter-final showdown with Manchester United.
Wolves have won the Cup four times, but the most recent of those triumphs came 59 years ago; they are aiming to reach the last four this weekend for the first time since 1998, and Nuno is taking nothing for granted.
He knows the English football landscape has changed irrevocably since the Black Country side last won the game’s oldest knockout competition, and that it is barely recognisable, even, from the time of their last semi-final appearance. But he also sees an opportunity.
The FA Cup, to many clubs outside the Premier League’s top six, is valued somewhere between an inconvenience and an irrelevance. And even of those who consider it a worthwhile pursuit, most will still, with good reason, view it as a futile one.
It is a bone of contention very year among fans and the media that clubs whose top-flight status is secure do not pour more effort into the domestic cups, thus devaluing them as competitions.
The truth is that, while the Big Six often have no more affection for the cups, deeming them secondary to the top-four race and the Champions League, the financial imbalance at the top of English football is such that one of them, almost invariably, still wins the FA Cup each year.
Since Everton won the Cup back in 1995, upsetting Manchester United 1-0 in the final at the old Wembley Stadium, only two teams outside the country’s five richest clubs have lifted the famous old trophy – Portsmouth in 2008 and Wigan Athletic in 2013.
There is a chicken-egg debate as to what came first: the dominance of the elite or the apathy of the mid-ranking clubs. And there have been various suggestions for how to increase the appeal of winning the Cup, from increased prize money to offering a place in the following season’s Champions League to the winner.
Where once the First Division and FA Cup enjoyed relatively equal billing, the Premier League is now the behemoth of the English game, the Cup its estranged cousin. But, given the status quo, in which the difference between finishing seventh and 12th in the Premier League is worth £9million, while the unlikely glory of lifting the FA Cup offers just a £6million reward, it’s easy to see why clubs prioritise the league, however unromantic and unexciting that may be to fans.
Wolves, though, when they host United at Molineux, have the chance to show that there doesn’t have to be a choice made between league and cup, that it is possible to pour equal resource into each and succeed.
“It is the biggest game for the club for some time we are aware of that.” Nuno said, understanding that, while climbing the Premier Leagues is the long-term goal, Wolves fans would love nothing more than a deep cup run.
Of course, although they were only promoted from the second tier last season, Fosun-backed Wolves, currently seventh in the Premier League, are closer to the Big Six than most of their rivals when it comes to financial might, too.
But they remain a work in progress. And Nuno prefers to operate with a shallow squad. The fact he has given more than one Premier League start to just 15 players this season (Everton, for example, have 21 players with multiple starts to their name), and that only 11 have accumulated more than 1000 minutes (West Ham United and Leicester City have 14 players on more than 1000 minutes), shows that twin priorities do not require expensive strength in depth and heavy rotation.
If Wolves can get past United on Saturday night, perhaps a few others will be inspired to follow their lead next season.