Sad indictment of FA Cup as Premier League elite learn to live without it

Another round of the FA Cup, another lament on the commitment shown to the competition by English football's leading clubs.

This time it's Gary Lineker, speaking as lead host of television live rights-holding BBC. "I feel sad for the old competition," he said this week ahead of the fifth round.

"It's not the biggest circus in town anymore but it's still got something."

Lineker, 56, and a winner with Tottenham in 1991, spoke as someone brought up with the FA Cup final as the match that transfixed a nation, each stop on the road to Wembley producing a dramatic story.

Instead, the competition has become a run-out for reserves, a rare afternoon between the sticks for a second-choice goalkeeper. Managers are no longer willing to risk stars for the strictly limited rewards on offer.

In an era where Premier League prize money now outstrips the riches paid out by the Champions League, the FA Cup's overall winners will pocket a mere £1.8 million, where each extra league position pulls in £2m and even the 20th-placed team will collect £97m.

Chelsea in 2010 were the last club to collect a Premier league and FA Cup double, to end a 16-year period when they, Manchester United (1994, 1996 and 1999) and Arsenal (1998 and 2002) collected six between them.

"The Double," viewed as near impossible in the 20th century until Tottenham collected one in 1961 -- an ultimate mark of historic greatness -- seems to have lost its cachet.

Adding further to the ailing grandeur is the fate of those managers who have actively pursued the FA Cup. Six of the last nine managers who led their team out at Wembley were sacked by the end of the calendar year, with Louis van Gaal learning his fate in the news conference that followed Manchester United's 2-1 victory over Crystal Palace last May. He had paid for failing to qualify for the Champions League. Only Arsene Wenger, who finished fourth and then third in the Premier League when he won the FA Cup in both 2014 and 2015, is still in the same job, for now.

Recent seasons suggest the optimum time to exit the competition and, to use the time-honoured cliché, "concentrate on the league" is either the fourth or fifth round. An early exit from the FA Cup now seems to augment a Premier League challenge, the evidence of the seasons post-2010 supporting the case of those managers currently being criticised for resting key players. That may spell good news for Jurgen Klopp, whose Liverpool team were the first of this season's top-six contenders to perish, when they lost to Wolves in the fourth round.

The last title winners to get as far as an FA Cup semifinal were Manchester United in 2011, where they were beaten 1-0 by Manchester City. When City won their first league title in 44 years the following May, they had exited the competition at the third round stage, a 3-2 loss at the hands of United, their title challengers right up until Sergio Aguero's 95th-minute winner on the final day of the season. United had exited the FA Cup in the fourth round after losing 2-1 at Liverpool.

When Sir Alex Ferguson collected his 13th and final title the next year, he was unable to sign off with one last Double. Having made seven changes for a quarterfinal replay, United lost 1-0 to Chelsea. The Scot had focused instead on his valedictory triumph, fielding a full team in a 1-0 win at Sunderland two days before the replay was scheduled for Easter Monday. And at the 2013 FA Cup final, City manager Roberto Mancini, having finished 11 points behind Ferguson, spent his FA Cup final postmatch news conference deflecting (true) claims he was about to be sacked, rather than an embarrassing 1-0 loss to Wigan Athletic.

Wigan, at the quarterfinal stage, ended eventual champions City's chance of a Double the next year, the round after Liverpool, who ran City so close that season, had exited at Arsenal.

In January 2015, the embarrassment of losing 4-2 at home to Bradford in the fourth round was little impediment to Chelsea cruising to the title by eight points over City. And last season, Leicester fielded very much a second-string outfit in losing a third round replay 2-0 to Tottenham, before strolling to a 10-point title victory. Spurs, closest challengers for much of the campaign, themselves exited the FA Cup at the fifth round stage in February when losing 1-0 at Crystal Palace.

It is a lengthy sequence which should trouble nostalgic, critical traditionalists like Lineker. English football's top teams are probably best out of the FA Cup, rather than trying to win it.