Tuesday 20 February 2018

Brian Kerr: When it comes to the FA Cup, clubs should realise that sometimes glory is more important than money

Golden moments: Ricky Villa shoots past Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Corrigan to score the winning goal for Tottenham the 1981 FA Cup final replay. Photo: Popperfoto/Getty Images
Golden moments: Ricky Villa shoots past Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Corrigan to score the winning goal for Tottenham the 1981 FA Cup final replay. Photo: Popperfoto/Getty Images

Brian Kerr

When he was managing Northern Ireland and Chelsea, Danny Blanchflower used to deliver a message to his players before each game.

"It isn't always about winning," he said. "Football is also about the glory."

If only it still was. Yet as we approach another weekend of FA Cup action, there is every chance we will be depressed rather than energised by many of the things we'll see.

Or, if the third round of the competition is anything to go by, we'll float from one emotional extreme to the other.

Part of us will look at Oxford United's tie with Newcastle and conjure up images of Aldridge, Houghton and Langan during the League One club's heyday or even reminisce further back in time, to a real low point in Newcastle's history, when Ronnie Radford's wondergoal for Hereford knocked them out of the Cup in 1972.

Yet before we fall into the trap of getting all misty-eyed with nostalgia, a quick scan of the attendances of some of the third-round games - the 5,163 people at Wigan Athletic against Nottingham Forest, the 6,608 spectators who paid to see Hull's tie against Swansea, or the 5,199 that watched Cardiff play Fulham - will remind us of the new reality.

Tottenham captain of 1961 Danny Blanchflower, holds the FA Cup trophy aloft after defeating Leicester City at Wembley. Photo: Central Press/Getty Images
Tottenham captain of 1961 Danny Blanchflower, holds the FA Cup trophy aloft after defeating Leicester City at Wembley. Photo: Central Press/Getty Images

If the lack of interest of supporters is annoying to some, then it is understandable to the rest of us. Fans - facing a financial squeeze just after Christmas - have been taken for granted by far too many clubs who use the early rounds of the FA Cup as an opportunity to rest key players and experiment with fringe members of their squad.

As a manager, you can understand this policy, particularly from the leading clubs, when you consider the timing of the third and fourth rounds, scheduled for January, just after the busy Christmas period, just before the resumption of the European competitions.


Knowing that a rotation of their squad is unlikely to affect the result of their game, the top six teams in the Premier League have, in many ways, set the agenda for everyone else to follow.

Look at the team Eddie Howe picked for Bournemouth at Millwall earlier this month. And look at the subsequent hammering they got.

And this indifferent attitude by many managers towards the third and fourth rounds of the competition has been facilitated by owners who have misjudged the loyalty of supporters. Sensing an ambivalence towards a once-great competition, those fans have shown a discerning attitude in return, because by now they know the drill.

If it is the third and fourth rounds, weakened teams will be fielded, and supporters will justifiably ask: 'why should I do this?'

You wonder how it's come to this, especially when you reflect on your own childhood, when your first memories of televised football stemmed from FA Cup final day, when the pomp and ceremony that surrounded the game held you in awe for at least a full afternoon.

I was thinking about all of this earlier this week as I scanned the fixture list ahead of this weekend's programme, seeing where the potential shocks lay, and recalling how big a deal it was, way back in 1961, when a Blanchflower-inspired Spurs were beating Leicester to win that year's Cup final.

That game was the first televised match I saw live, although the images from the following year's final, when Tottenham defeated Burnley, are fresher in my head, as Jimmy Greaves, home from Italy, proved a magical addition to a team that already contained some of the game's greatest players: Dave Mackay, Cliff Jones, John White, big Bobby Smith, Bill Brown and, of course, Belfast's Blanchflower.

Those were the glory days for the club - and when you think of their standing in the game today, and you think of the reasons why a fine young manager like Mauricio Pochettino would end up in north London, having been born and bred in Argentina, you don't have to be a genius to figure out why White Hart Lane was an attraction.

For it was White Hart Lane, Wembley and the FA Cup where Ossie Ardiles' and Ricky Villa's legends were cemented. Growing up in Santa Fe, a young Pochettino would have seen that meandering run and iconic goal of Villa's against Manchester City in the 1981 Cup final replay and formed an impression of the competition that would never have left him.

But now?

It's hard to see how today's generation will feel the same way, given how the era they have been brought up in has no shortage of televised matches to watch and given how the FA Cup - considered, believe it or not, to have a greater status than the league during my formative years in the 1960s - is now viewed as an afterthought to some and a relic to others.

Clearly the FA have to accept some of the blame for this, dating back to their behaviour in 2000, when they almost encouraged Manchester United not to play in the Cup that year, pressurising them instead to go to the World Club Championships in Brazil as part of their bidding process to get the 2006 World Cup based in England.

Well, they failed with that attempt and their attitude towards both United and their own competition that season hardly helped a problematic situation.

Of course there are other reasons why the decline in status set in. From a financial perspective, clubs know where the big money lies.

Take 2015, the year Arsenal won the competition for a record-equalling 12th time. They collected £4.5m in FA Cup prize-money that season, which is not a lot when measured against the £25m they earned from their run in the Champions League last year, and the £93m they received for finishing runners-up in the Premier League.

And to place the prize money on offer for winning the FA Cup in a local context, Dundalk earned almost twice as much on the back of their European run last season.

So, if your sole concern was pounds and pence, it makes perfect sense for clubs to treat the competition with either lack of interest or contempt, especially when you consider that Aston Villa earned £62.3m last season, despite the fact they ended the season propping up the Premier League table.

Fully aware that there are unlikely to be any consequences if they lose a Cup tie - either from the fans or the board - managers set the tone. The reserves get brought in and while no-one deliberately sets out to lose, no one cries if defeat comes.

And yet, having launched the case for the prosecution, this isn't a one-sided argument.

For every tale of indifference, there are the countless examples of teams who do care.

"I don't know why people do not have a positive opinion about the Cup," Arsene Wenger said after his team knocked Preston out in the third round.

"I would have been devastated to go out. Somebody reminded me yesterday I have never gone out in the third round in 20 years. That's because I care about the competition."

So do others.

Five million viewers tuned in to watch Lincoln knock Mick McCarthy's Ipswich Town out in a third-round replay last week; 74,396 paid in to see Manchester United defeat Reading; while 9,000 Plymouth fans travelled 300 miles north to watch their club draw with Liverpool at Anfield.

And even more will be keeping an eye on Sutton United, who face Leeds in the fourth round, all the while rekindling memories of their victory over Coventry City, then an established top-flight side, in 1989, while tales are told of how this Cup run has generated nearly £600,000 for a club with a £1m turnover.

"There is a leak in the roof of the main stand," said their chairman, Bruce Elliott. "We have the money to fix that now."

And yet this isn't just about money for him.

"The publicity speaks for itself," Elliott said. "It's priceless really. We shall be living off this for some time."

And that's the other side of the argument.

For those who say the Cup is meaningless - and to those who treat it that way - there are the stories like Sutton United's and Lincoln City's that remind you that it still has a purpose.

There is a statue outside the Stadium of Light of Bob Stokoe - not because Sunderland finished sixth in the old Second Division in 1972-73. No-one remembers that. Yet no-one forgets the fact that was the year they won the FA Cup, that 1976 was Southampton's year, 1987 Coventry's, 1988 Wimbledon's.

And that's the bit I don't get.

While it is perfectly understandable that managers prioritise the league, it makes absolutely no sense that the mid-table clubs in the Premier League who are neither fish nor fowl - too good to go down, but not strong enough to break into the top six - don't show a greater interest in winning the thing.

The third round saw four of the teams positioned between seventh and 11th miserably disappear from the competition.

Everton (who last won a trophy in 1995), West Brom (who haven't won anything bar promotion since 1968), Stoke (whose only notable success came 45 years ago), West Ham (who are on a 37-year trophy famine) all crashed out with a whimper.

And yet neither the reputation nor jobs of those defeated managers were at risk by their early exits.

Still, doesn't part of them think about their legacy? Isn't there a bit of them that must wonder what it would be like to have a trophy on their CV and to know that in 40 years' time they'll be remembered the way Stokoe is at Sunderland, Lawrie McMenemy is at Southampton, John Lyall at West Ham?

Put it this way, in 2057 no-one will be looking at a bronze statue for Ronald Koeman, Mark Hughes, Tony Pulis or Slaven Bilic on the back of the fact they once finished eighth in the league.

"Okay," they'll say, "but money matters."

It does. But so should supporters and the game's history.

So should the FA Cup.

Irish Independent

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