Saturday 24 March 2018

Cup fever runneth over and out

Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp holds his broken glasses at the end of Saturday's match against Norwich City. The FA Cup will add to Liverpool’s fixture congestion. Photo: Reuters / John Sibley.
Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp holds his broken glasses at the end of Saturday's match against Norwich City. The FA Cup will add to Liverpool’s fixture congestion. Photo: Reuters / John Sibley.
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

I recently had a conversation with a football fan in his 20s who wasn't quite old enough to remember the sheer brilliance of the original Ronaldo. I explained just how good he was for Barcelona and, even with all the injuries, he was decent for Inter and scored that amazing goal against Lazio in the Cup Winners' Cup final.

"The what?" came the reply.

As is turned out, old age had played a trick on the mind because it was the 1998 UEFA Cup final in which Ronaldo threw so many shapes in front of Luca Marchegiani that he left Lazio goalkeeper looking at the ground like a drunk trying to find his keys.

The UEFA Cup survived for a few more seasons before morphing into the Europa League - a competition so open that Group L exists - but one year after the Ronaldo final, the Cup Winners' Cup was gone.

For almost 40 years it had been a staple of European football with personal childhood highlights from worn-out recordings of midweek Sportsnight including Mark Hughes's thunderbolt against Barcelona; the only New Zealand footballer anybody knew, Wynton Rufer, helping Werder Bremen beat Monaco in 1992, and Celtic's 5-4 victory over Partizan Belgrade a few years earlier, which is still regarded as one of the club's great European games even though they went out on away goals.


There were great games and great players involved but as the Champions League's vast prize-money cast its shadow across the continent, four decades of the Cup Winners' Cup counted for nothing and it was abolished due to lack of interest. Which brings us neatly to the FA Cup.

It's easy to mock the "magic" which is meant to surround the competition - usually pushed strongly by whichever television station happens to hold the rights - but the disdain with which it is now being treated by so many involved is sending it hurtling towards a path of irrelevance not dissimilar to the European competition where its winners used to end up.

Next weekend is the FA Cup fourth round with stories of potential upsets mooted enthusiastically by breathless TV presenters, yet clubs who don't have deep squads to choose from tend to look forward to the competition with all the enthusiasm of somebody getting another turkey and ham dinner on December 29.

It's now at the point where tales of cup giant-killings will soon be replaced by famous FA Cup draws where the lower league team was far happier to end up level in the first game because it meant they'd make more money from splitting the gate receipts in a replay at a Premier League ground than they would from getting through to the next round. That they might be hammered in the replay is utterly irrelevant.

Were it scored today, Ronnie Radford's famous goal for Hereford against Newcastle would be of even greater significance because it was an equaliser and, with the game at Edgar Street already a replay, it could have meant a second trip back to St James's Park. In modern parlance, Ricky George's winner would have ruined the prospect of a "money-spinning replay".

The fact that it's probably easier for most people - at least those old enough to remember the original Ronaldo - to name the winners from 1976-1995 than it is to name them from 1996 to 2015, shows just how far down it is on the pecking order of the average football anorak.

For the second successive round, next week's fixtures will be followed by a midweek set of Premier League games and, while it is understandable that teams battling relegation or aiming for the title might prioritise that fight over the FA Cup, the depressing part is those who know they will finish comfortably between 7th and 14th and still decide to rest players.

The 16 teams who qualify from next week's fourth round will receive £90,000 in prize- money, which rises to £1.8m for the team who wins the competition. By comparison, with every place higher in the Premier League finished last season, clubs received an additional £1,236,083. That figure will increase further when the new TV deals kick in making it understandable why Crystal Palace, for example, might prefer to beat Bournemouth in the league on Tuesday week than Stoke in the Cup next Saturday.

Tomorrow night is likely to decide just how much effort Liverpool put into the FA Cup and, if they can maintain their League Cup advantage over Stoke to earn a place in the final, the answer will be very little.


Players are, obviously, well rewarded, but it's little wonder that some clubs are effectively self-sabotaging in the FA Cup when they have to grind through cup competitions, replays, two-legged semi-finals while trying to maintain strong league form as their European counterparts look on in bemusement.

If Liverpool manage to avoid a replay when they play West Ham next weekend, they will face Augsburg in the knock-out stages of the Europa League having already played 12 competitive games in 2016. By comparison, the Germans will have played four.

It's unrealistic to expect a merger of the two English cup competitions but there will come a breaking point where interest in them will not runneth over so much as runneth out.

Those who are against moving the third round back from a January date will point to tradition, but there's nothing traditional about Friday night games - like the one Derby face against Manchester United despite having a crucial Championship match tonight - or the draw for the next round taking place on The One Show with supporters of opposing clubs lined up outside BBC studios for a pathetic show of rivalry.

It should be possible to reduce the eight qualifying rounds before the Premier League teams enter the competition to potentially free up some time and, while it's unfortunate that lesser lights wouldn't get to shine on a big stage so often, the alternative of continuing with the format in its current guise isn't sustainable.

For a competition with such a storied history, "death due to lack of interest" would be a terrible epitaph.

Indo Sport

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