Tuesday 23 January 2018

Ian Rush: Sky cash will let lesser lights pursue dream of Cup glory

"It's only when you look at the figures of the Premier League's new TV rights deal that you feel like breaking into a cold sweat"

Ian Rush

It's only when you look at the figures of the Premier League's new TV rights deal in cold print that you feel like breaking into a cold sweat - £5.2bn!

It's the sort of money that will change some people's lives - considerably more than the £20 a week I earned in my first pay packet as a young lad at Chester. But will it change the game? I'm not so sure.

The fact is, it already has changed. The previous broadcast deals ensured that clubs prioritised the Premier League way above everything else and resulted in so many clubs looking down their noses at the FA Cup. Compared to the league, the competition just didn't seem to matter.

That certainly seemed to be the case between 1996 and 2007, when the trophy was shared between just four clubs, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool, who also happened to be the teams dominating the Premier League, even if Liverpool had to be satisfied with being challengers rather than champions in that era.

Elsewhere, the rich were getting richer and the poor were going nowhere, except the Championship if they conceded too much time to the FA Cup or League Cup and didn't concentrate on survival.

Attitude

Something changed, though, the moment Portsmouth beat Cardiff City in the 2008 Cup final. Hope and glory returned. The attitude became, 'well if they can get there, why can't we?'

A year later, we saw Everton reach their first FA Cup final in 14 years; in 2010 Portsmouth returned to Wembley for that year's decider; Stoke City got to their maiden FA Cup final a year later; Wigan won the competition for the first time two years ago; Hull City appeared in their first final last season.

Along the way, we have also seen some teams, who were safe from relegation and with no chance of qualifying for Europe, neglecting the competition and fielding weakened teams, which is what Southampton and Newcastle did last year.

From the perspective of an accountant, you can see why they did so. Eighth rather than ninth meant an extra £500,000 in the coffers. But a Cup run gives a club so much more.

For Hull, for Wigan, for Stoke, for Portsmouth, for Everton and Cardiff - it was about the glory, something most Premier League clubs have experienced precious little of in recent years.

Aside from the fans of Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, United and Liverpool, there are so many Premier League teams whose supporters have never known success.

Tottenham and Swansea may be exceptions, having won the League Cup in 2008 and 2012, respectively. But it is 24 years since Spurs were last in the FA Cup final; 54 years since they last won the league.

With the money City, Chelsea and United have, not to mention Arsenal and Liverpool, is winning the league possible for any other side? Surely this is why they should chase the Cup, a tangible prize?

West Brom will chase it - aiming for their sixth FA Cup win and first since 1968. Opportunity knocks for all 16 teams. Some have never won it - never won any major prize. Think Crystal Palace and Reading.

Others have been waiting a long time for significant silverware, Preston since 1938, Aston Villa since 1996, Leicester since Martin O'Neill was their manager in 2000, West Ham since 1980, Bradford since 1911, Sunderland since 1973, Blackburn since 2002, Stoke since 1972, Derby since 1975, Middlesbrough since 2004.

For Villa, Leicester, Blackburn, Stoke and Boro, that last taste of glory was in the League Cup. The FA Cup, a more prestigious prize, has eluded them much longer.

You have to go back to 1957 for Villa's last Cup win - which is a lifetime considering that only United, Spurs and Arsenal have won the competition more times.

Similarly Blackburn - six-time FA Cup winners - have not been in a Wembley final since 1960 (their League Cup win in 2002 took place in Cardiff). Leicester have yet to win the FA Cup but have been in four finals, their last in 1969.

So in this context, why wouldn't clubs, managers, players take it seriously? Until now, the answer has been obvious. The league mattered more because the league paid way more prize-money.

That won't change with this new TV deal.

But there will be a positive change. With so much money coming into the English Premier League now, every top-flight club has the opportunity to not just build a cracking team but a brilliant squad.

So just as rotation is a necessity for those clubs fighting on a domestic and European front, it can similarly become the norm for the middle and lower-ranking Premier League sides.

Strong

In the future, when Cup competitions come along, clubs may drop key first-team players but will still field strong sides. Why? Because a £5.2bn deal will allow them to.

Until now they have been betwixt and between. They had strength but not strength in depth. They could chase points in the league but not operate on a dual front.

This TV deal will allow them to do both. Football will be the better for it. And so will the FA Cup, which remains my favourite competition.

No other tournament pits Yeovil, then Cambridge and then Preston against Manchester United - where history counts for nothing and the night counts for everything.

Nor has any other tournament as long and as storied a history. It remains the best.

Season over in February? No way, Jose . . .

Seven points clear, 14 games to go and eight of those are at home.

It's over, right? Chelsea have the league won? Yes?

You would think so, not least because Jose Mourinho is their manager, one of the best deal-clinchers in the game.

Whenever his teams have had their noses in front before, they have normally gone on to secure the title. Porto did it twice in Portugal, Chelsea twice in England, Inter Milan twice in Italy and Real Madrid once in Spain. So he has form. Plus he has some great players.

And yet I don't think it is over. Nor do I think Manchester City need to win all 14 games to secure their third title in three seasons. I think Mourinho (pictured) is right when he says 'if I wanted an easy title, I would not have come to England'.

Nothing is easy here. Burnley, or Sunderland, or anyone could beat Chelsea on any given day. If this was Spain, Germany or Italy and Mourinho had a seven-point lead, I'd say 'game over, see you next year'.

But this is the Premier League and while I don't think our best sides are superior to Barcelona, Real Madrid or Barcelona, I'm convinced our middle-ranking and lower-rated sides are much stronger than the equivalent teams in Germany or Spain.

That is why it is not over. Remember 1989? Or 1995? Or 1996? Or 2012? This League has a history of serving up twists and turns. There could be another one this season.

That was the view I woke up with on Thursday morning after watching Manchester City recover from a torrid start against Stoke to record an impressive 4-1 win.

Considering they did it without Yaya Toure, who they have missed desperately when he has been absent this season, I think a marker has been laid down. Toure will be back for the run-in. Wilfried Bony will be available too.

Plus Sergio Aguero is looking as sharp now as he did in October and November. And that is ominous for everyone else.

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