Cup competitions… what’s the problem?
This last week has seen two players highlight their disappointment at not being included in their respective club’s squad allocation for the early stages of the Europa League. Both Rafael van der Vaart of Tottenham Hotspur and Stoke City’s Jonathan Woodgate have been made exempt from trips to Greece and the Ukraine with greater importance being placed on the domestic league campaign. Similarly in this week’s opening Champions League round of matches, new Chelsea boss Andre Villas Boas ‘rested’ John Terry and Frank Lampard and Sir Alex Ferguson has decided against taking Rio Ferdinand to Portugal for Manchester Utd’s game against Benfica, as the two English sides prepare to meet on Sunday.
The issue about ‘resting’ players isn’t something I’m going to go into as I have already discussed this at length previously; but what I don’t like is the growing trend of cup competitions particularly, being treated with disdain by some managers; Harry Redknapp even referred to the Europa League as a “nuisance” this week.
I understand that sometimes short-term goals are put to one side in preference for long-term aims, but the contempt and disrespect that is often shown towards these competitions I think is really bad for the game. Redknapp has claimed that he may field a younger side in this tournament, something he has done previously when he took over at White Hart Lane with Tottenham struggling near the foot of the Premier League, and to consider qualification to represent the English league against continental opposition as a nuisance is really poor in my opinion.
I would argue that this is a modern-day view borne out of the incessant amount of money attributed to Premier League success and does not represent views of clubs from other leagues in Europe, and may possibly indicate why English clubs often fare poorly in Europe’s secondary club competition.
This tactic though is not only employed by clubs embarking on a Europa League campaign but is also seen in domestic competition.
The English League Cup still offers a route into Europe and a trip to Wembley for a club and its fans, but again, early rounds are looked on rather scornfully by clubs; even to the extent that Queens Park Rangers manager Neil Warnock claiming that “people don’t care about the cup” and that he couldn’t get “motivated for the competition”. I find this an incredible thing to say; in my opinion, comments like this do not help generate interest in a great competition that has now slipped down certain club’s pecking order of priorities behind such things as finishing 17th.
The question is, how do you prevent clubs treating the competition as an annoyance and encourage a more positive approach which captures the imagination of supporters?
There have been attempts in the lower division’s Johnstone’s Paint Trophy with the ruling that at least 6 regular first team players must be selected in the starting XI, aimed at encouraging managers to not field a reserve side. This however has proven to not discourage the likes of Sheffield Wednesday’s Gary Megson who made all three substitutes in the first 17 minutes in their recent penalty shoot-out defeat to Bradford City in order to ‘protect’ some of his regular first team players.
There may be some general antipathy against this competition; particularly amongst those sides who would be regarded as ‘bigger clubs’ in the lower divisions, with aspirations of promotion to The Championship their main priority (I’m thinking of Sheffield Utd and Wednesday, Leeds Utd and Nottingham Forest in recent seasons), but for many other clubs, this represents a genuine opportunity to experience the Wembley atmosphere and provide players and supporters a ‘once in a lifetime’ prospect, with teams such as Carlisle Utd, Luton Town, Doncaster Rovers, MK Dons and Wrexham all winning the trophy in the last six seasons, and all backed by a large following in the final. The appetite is clearly there as Wembley gets closer, but similarly to the League Cup, and also sadly the FA Cup now, how can enthusiasm be reignited for the early stages of the competition for many clubs?
In the current economic situation and the spiralling rise in player wages and ticket prices, surely the first thing that could be introduced is a cap on the price of tickets. This could increase on a round by round basis; for instance in the FA Cup, I would argue that if ticket prices were capped at £8 for round 3 games, we may see a greater uptake in matchday attendance; this could increase to £12 for round 4, £18 for round 5 etc. Just an idea and one that I think deserves researching by the FA. A similar model could be introduced for the League Cup; or at least trialled before the competition loses what little kudos it still holds for many clubs.
Another idea I would be keen to see looked at; and one that counters another issue I have raised previously regarding clubs travelling around the world for showcase friendlies and then complain about player ‘burnout’ as the reason why the League Cup is seen as a competition not worth competing for. Could the early stages of the competition be reorganised to take place prior to the start of the league season? For instance, could round 1 take place the Saturday before the first game and round 2 quickly follow it midweek?
I think without any viable intervention by the footballing authorities in this country, we could see the demise of our cup competitions increase further as clubs continually see success as being measured on their ability to finish 17th in the top division or for those clubs with the comfort of perennial Champions League qualification, a finish in the top 4. For me, cup competitions still evoke the romance of domestic football and should be treasured; I still get excited about the draw for the next round of the cup.