Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Glory of the FA Cup is Dead and Buried as Teams Prioritise What's Important

Over the last number of years, many news columns have been dedicated to the erosion of the FA Cup. As teams of the highest standard play almost 60 games a season, the FA Cup has often taken on a nuisance value.

As teams challenge for league titles and European titles, the added games that an FA Cup run can bring are being looked at as more and more of a hindrance. But is this right? What motivates teams to turn their back on the oldest knock out competition in the world?

The value of the FA Cup has diminished over the last decade or so, and fingers are often pointed to 1999, when under pressure from the FA, Manchester United pulled out of the competition entirely.

But the truth of the matter is that the FA Cup became a devalued prize in 1992. What happened in 1992 that had such an effect on not only the FA Cup, but the League Cup, too? The Champions League started and the EPL came into being.

With teams such as Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal, and Chelsea all figuring in the qualification positions for the Champions League, the importance of winning the FA Cup to qualify for Europe became unnecessary.

And as the Champions League format progressed to its 17-game total as we see it now, the English Cups became games on an already packed calender.

The teams who qualified for the Champions League now play that many games, they ow need larger squads. They then pick up star players from teams like Tottenham and Everton and Fulham who then become squad players in their new home.

This has a two fold effect. First it strengthens the richer teams. Two, it dilutes the rest of the league, so what you're left with is a 14-team relegation battle.

As we move towards this weekend's fourth round FA Cup action, it has now become apparent that other teams are now targeting the FA Cup as another unwanted match, and a distracting cup run is the last thing they want.

In recent seasons, we have seen relegation strugglers rest star players as they put weakened teams out to play. We're used to seeing United give youngsters a chance, too, as they give their stars a rest, and Liverpool and Arsenal are the same, too.

For teams on the top and the bottom of the league, you could argue that you understand why they field weakened teams. For the elite, they don't want to pick up injuries with the knock out phase of the Champions League around the corner.

For relegation battlers, staying up is their priority, and they can't risk losing players in a game of a competition they're not going to win.

But the real erosion of the FA Cup takes place in mid-table Premiership teams. Wigan fielded a weakened side against Spurs in the third round. Hull fielded a second-string team, and a few seasons ago, Steve Coppell even went as far as to say that he didn't want to win the cup, as they did not want the added distraction that European football would bring.

With the advent of the Premiership and the Champions League, football has evolved. So too have teams priorities and expectations.

The priority for 16 teams in the Premiership is to stay in the Premiership. The added revenue that the TV money brings in has allowed clubs like Wigan and Portsmouth and Fulham to attract excellent players from all over the world.

The priority for the other four of five, if Aston Villa have anything to say about it, is to qualify for the Champions League.

And barring a miracle (Portsmouth last year) a team outside the top four will not win the FA Cup. Over the last 22 years, only Spurs, Everton, and Portsmouth have broken the top fours domination of the once great cup.

And now even clubs like Spurs have decided to use the cup as a rest weekend. Priorities have changed at White Hart Lane, following last night's embarrassing victory over Burnley that saw Tottenham progress to the Carling Cup Final against Manchester United.

Harry Redknapp announced in his interview with Sky Sports that he would send a "mish mash of a team" to Old Trafford on Saturday as Spurs take on United in the fourth round of the FA Cup.

"We've got some tough games, we've a game at Man United that really is so secondary to me now, we're in a relegation battle and I can't risk Jamie O'Hara, Jonathan Woodgate, and Michael Dawson at Old Trafford. When I took over we had two points from eight games but Stoke (on Tuesday) is a massive game for us."

What makes Spurs stance so strange is that they're a club with a great history in the cup and Harry Redknapp managed Portsmouth to win the cup last year.

But Redknapp is not alone, within hours of his incendiary statement, Alex Ferguson confirmed that he too would also be fielding a weakened side.

Facing into an injury crisis at Old Trafford, Ferguson confirmed that he would not risk certain defenders against Spurs, and that he is considering John O'Shea and Darren Fletcher as make shift centre halves on Saturday.

Liverpool will do the same, this is their first title challenge in 19 years, and Rafa will be loathe to lose some star players in the least of his priorities this season. Chelsea have always played full strength teams in whatever competition they play in, but that too could change this weekend as Big Phil strives to protect his threadbare defence.

So going into this weekend, only Arsenal of the big four look prepared to play a full strength team. But they are as guilty as anyone else, as they dismiss the League Cups importance every season, too.

It's a shame that football has come to this "prioritisation," and you can understand the stance that certain teams take.

The League Cup and FA Cup award you UEFA Cup football, so it's easy to see why Champions League teams look at them as being unimportant.

The relegation battlers can also be somewhat forgiven.

At the end of the day, there are only three cups to spread between 92 teams, so it can go a long time before you get your hands on one again. Each game should be played like it is your last and you should always strive to win. Isn't that what you're told as a child?

As this innocence was lost, so too was the glory of the cup.

twitter / WillieGannon