Friday, January 11, 2008

Too Big For The Cup?

When you're sitting at your desk, wishing the day away and daydreaming about the football career that you were so cruelly robbed of, what do you think of? Captaining your national team to victory in the World Cup? Winning the FA Cup or the Premier League? Scoring the winning goal in the FA Cup final? Saving a penalty in a crucial play-off match? Whatever it is that you do idly daydream about, I wouldn't mind betting that you probably don't idly daydream about finishing in thirteenth place in the Premier League. Why is it, then, that clubs such as Reading have taken the decision to field weakened teams in the FA Cup?

They're not the only ones to have to done this over the last few seasons or so, but Reading's decision to pick an under strength team at Tottenham in the Third Round of the FA Cup has been this season's most high-profile case, so it's worth taking a closer look at them in particular. Reading are, you may be surprised to know, one of the oldest clubs in English football. They were founded in 1871, and were voted into the Football League in 1920. As long ago as 1913, they toured Italy and beat Genoa and Milan on their own turf. They were nicknamed "The Biscuitmen" after the massive Huntley & Palmers biscuit factory that dominated the town and played at the rustic yet homely Elm Park. They bounced around the lower divisions, offending no-one, and earned the nation's sympathy in 1983 when their supporters combined with supporters of local rivals Oxford United to off a proposed merger of the two clubs by Robert Maxwell to form a proposed new club called Thames Valley Royals.

Somewhere along the line, though, Reading have started to get delusions of grandeur. They moved to the Madejski Stadium in 1998 (it's named after their autocratic owner, John Madejski), and were promoted to the Premier League in 2006. This season, their second in the Premier League, they decided to field an under-strength team in the FA Cup. Manager Steve Coppell was fairly blunt in his assessment of the situation: "I have got to do what I feel is right for this football club. I have been consistent every year and I will continue to be consistent. But we are going there to win - we are not going there to keep the score down". So, Reading FC, who haven't managed a major trophy in one hundred and thirty-seven years, are now too big for the FA Cup.

I am, I think, a realist. Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool are focussed on bigger prizes than the FA Cup. They, however, have big enough, strong enough squads to sail into the semi-finals of the cup with their youth teams. I've heard it said before that any one of these four clubs could win the FA Cup if they wanted to, and there's an element of truth to this. The likes of Reading, though... I don't get it. They are currently in thirteenth place in the Premier League. They're not likely to get relegated, and they're not likely to get sucked into a relegation battle, either. They were knocked out of the League Cup before the end of September, and with just thirty-eight fixtures to play in the league, they can hardly claim fixture congestion as an excuse, can they? Ironically, a full-strength Reading team might have beaten Tottenham at White Hart Lane last Saturday, and now they have a replay that they almost certainly didn't want next week. The draw for the Fourth Round has probably done for them anyway. They have to travel to Old Trafford even if they do see off a vastly improved Tottenham team. They're looking at having played a forty-three match season. The irony is that the historical evidence indicates that the FA Cup doesn't impact on a club's season. It took until Brighton & Hove Albion in 1983 for a team to make an FA Cup final and be relegated in the same season. One hundred and eleven years. It simply isn't something that happens anything like every season.

I think that they are selling their fans short. Having got themselves in the Premier League, they have a decent chance of making the FA Cup final - the strongest team that Reading FC has ever had must mean that Reading FC must have its best chance ever of actually winning something, right? Isn't this, you know, what football is supposed to be about? Reading may well stay up in the Premier League this season, but they're fooling themselves if they think that resting players for a couple of FA Cup matches is going to make the difference between staying up and not. Ultimately, they're sacrificing the possibility of giving their supporters something that, in all honesty, money can't buy in return for another season of mid-table mediocrity and their supporters should remember that for every glamorous match against Manchester United or Liverpool there will be two against the likes of Bolton Wanderers or Middlesbrough.

There is a way of resolving this. If the likes of Reading consider themselves "too big" for the FA Cup, then perhaps they should just not enter it at all. If it's, you know, too much of an effort to take the FA Cup seriously, why bother being in it in the first place? I think (and this is a bit of a wild guess, but bear with me) that the world's oldest cup competition might just about be able to withstand the shock of Reading not being in it, and the same goes for Bolton Wanderers, Birmingham City, or any of the rest of those Premier League also-rans whose sole existence now seems to be to do whatever they have to do in order to continue picking up that Sky TV cheque every year. If the summit of your ambitions is to finish in thirteenth place in the Premier League every season, then you frankly deserve it.


Ed said...

My main footballing daydream is now thus:

1. apply my lengthy experience on Championship Manager to becoming an actual football manager
2. slowly build up my reputation and club, eventually rising to be a competitive proposition in the top flight
3(a). sign Dave Kitson
3(b). go on a dazzling, romantic run to the FA Cup final
3(c). drop Dave Kitson from the final squad, let alone the team.
4. Laugh my head off as the great lanky tosser moans on about being deprived of the "biggest game of my life" and "my footballing dream" without even the mildest hint of irony.
5. Sell Dave Kitson to Crystal Palace for a set of shin pads.

The end.

Alex said...

Dead on. The Big Four aren't killing the FA Cup, it's the clubs like Reading who might just have a shot at it, but don't bother who are killing it. It's their lack of competition that ensures we have to endure the same teams winning it year on year. As you say, they'd be adding maybe six games to their hardly packed season should they reach the final. It's not that much to ask that they try, is it? I agree, the FA should suggest that if they care so little about it, they shouldn't enter.

What do you reckon West Ham fans remember about their 05/06 season? Their competant performance in the league? Or their thrilling FA Cup final defeat? Exactly.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, as much as the FA Cup means to British football, a reward of a couple million pounds and a UEFA Cup birth won't cut it any more. There needs to be a more of insentive for football teams to take the FA Cup seriously.

billmapguy said...

Brighton may have been the first to be relegated and lose the FA Cup Final, but Middlesbrough did it 14 years later (plus losing the League Cup Final that same year ! Ouch.)

Gervillian Swije said...

Leicester did it in 1969 as well. Doesn't detract from the main point though, that a run in the FA Cup will almost certainly not impact negatively on the mediocrity that teams like Reading subscribe to.

Anyways, fielding a weakened team at home to Swansea in the third round of last year's FA Cup and being twatted 3-0 at home - hardly helped Sheffield United's season did it.

Moore said...

From a massively selfish point of view I actually approved of the attitude of these clubs. For what it's worth, my beloved Man City at least try and take the cups seriously every year, due largely to extended trophy drought. The less clubs of around our standard who can be arsed with it, the more chance of a bit of a run if the top sides knock each other out.

Having said that, trust us to draw West Ham in the third round, who appear to approach the competition with the same attitude. Fond memories of a recent final affecting the attitude no doubt.

col said...

Wow! Arsenal got killed last night! Anybody see it?
The fans must have been furious! 5 – 1, I mean Tottenham played very well but Arsenal fielded barely any first team players, what were they thinking!? The Fans have every right to be annoyed! When you travel to see your team play you expect them to at least try! Whoever did a little football spread betting on Arsenal losing will be laughing all the way to work this morning! Maybe I Should start spread betting and see if I can win a few bets! I want to laugh on the way to work!

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