Domestic Cups. So long held up as a source of fairy-tale victories and Cinderella runs, they are the oldest and most storied competitions in all of football.
For many years, I saw the FA Cup Final as the grandest occasion that domestic club football had to offer. My second name was taken from a scorer in the ’77 version, mere days before my birth. Man United beating Everton 1-0 in 1985 was the first time in my life that I could properly appreciate my team winning a trophy (’83 was a little early). In ’88, everyone that didn’t support Liverpool rejoiced to see Wimbledon take it against the odds.
Twenty-six years after the 1990 FA Cup victory allegedly saved Sir Alex Ferguson’s job at Man United, winning the competition wasn’t deemed good enough to rescue Lousi* Van Gaal from the axe (*typo but so amusingly appropriate, I’m leaving it).
This weekend, Man United progressed to the final in the EFL Cup (“The Ethel”/FKA “The League Cup”) and swept Wigan aside to move on in the FA Cup. Once upon a time, that sentence would have excited me. Alas, no more.
In terms of the Ethel, I’m somewhat nonplussed. It’s fun to reach the final but the competition is nothing more than a “nice-to-have” these days. Whether United lift it or not, will have no bearing on whether 20016-17 is considered a successful season.
Man United are more to blame than anybody for that. It was us that made the conscious decision, in a bid by Fergie to mitigate fixture congestion, to start fielding reserves and youth in early rounds. The collateral damage of early elimination was casually accepted when it came. For that reason alone, it’s hard to get overly passionate about it when we succeed in spite of our squad selection, rather than because of it.
Of course, given the club’s relatively tepid league performances post-Fergie, I suppose we shouldn’t look on any trophy like a regifted, partially-used bar of bacon-scented soap. However, considering that the “Official Man United 1995-96 Season in Review VHS Tape” presented the humiliating 3-0 League Cup loss to York City as part of its “Funnies” segment, it’s a tough temptation to resist.
In all honesty, I’ve long felt that the Ethel has outgrown its usefulness. This in fact dates back to the 1999-2000 season. As I’m sure you’ll all recall, Manchester United as Treble Winners were invited to play in the inaugural FIFA Club World Cup.
The Football Association and British Government alike, strongly urged United to take part. It was such a strong urging. Perhaps it was so strong because English football had a rather checkered past of taking colossal, arrogant, proverbial dumps over previous endeavours. Having almost literally poo-pooed the implementations of things like the World Cup and European Champion Clubs Cup as far beneath them, there’s been a lot of ignorance and subsequent embarrassment.
Anyhoo, United agreed but it was noted that the FA Cup would also start while they were away in Brazil. Therefore, the Red Devils had to withdraw from the Cup, pissing off the nation in the process. The Government and FA would ultimately, strategically late-in-the-day, urge United to try participate in the FA Cup, even though they’d pretty much mandated the situation in the first place.
Man Utd were already committed to being in the CWC and stood firm on not entering the FA Cup.
As a result, I had a couple of debates with friends about the status of these cups. My position at that point was that these cups were nice for giving lower league clubs the chance to mingle with big teams and get some nice gate windfalls from time to time. An Ipswich-supporting friend pointed out that we don’t need two cups for that and if we wanted to ease fixture congestion, we ought to just scrap the League Cup.
After some though, I concurred. Few nations bother with a second cup. Many don’t really care about their single domestic cup either. UEFA stopped giving berths for League Cups a while ago, though a few nations (England included) successfully requested to have the final Europa League place continue to be awarded to its winner.
The thing about the League Cup though, besides my own club, Arsenal and a few other big guns, weakening the competition with under-strength lineups, is that it no longer serves the purpose of what it was invented for: taking advantage of being able to play at night due to floodlights!
Yes, that’s right: the only reason the competition exists is because clubs had time to spare and could pull in punters on winter weeknights. We now maximise the benefit of floodlights by playing at any number of times and dates, in expanded leagues and tournaments, so why we’re trying to shuffle schedules around a competition that was only created to fill that long-extinct gap, is a mystery.
The FA Cup, I think will always have a place. It’s the oldest football competition in the world. It’s still entertaining. It provides the single KO spectacle that is one of the few aspects absent from a round-robin league format. It’s tradition is rich and deep enough to have an eternal value. We’d all miss it if it was gone.
If we didn’t have the Ethel to arrange, we could even schedule the end of the EPL season so we don’t have the devaluing situation of the FA Cup Final now taking place on the same day as league fixtures!
If it were up to me and UEFA could be convinced to “play ball”, I’d even push to reestablish the FA Cup’s worth. Right now, a place in the Europa League (itself grossly devalued by the expansion of the UEFA Champions League) is a minor benefit of winning the Cup. Though shocks are more prevalent in the Cups, you still get plenty of big teams winning it (of the past 10 winners, 8 finished in UCL spots), causing that berth to slip down to an upper-midtable EPL club .
I’d add value by having the FA Cup winner play the 4th placed EPL club for the right to play in the UCL, with the loser getting the Europa slot. If the FA Cup winner is already in the top 4, have the FA Cup runner-up play for the honour. If both are in the top 4, a “wildcard team”, based on the best performing cup team over a five year average, not already qualified for the UCL, will get the second playoff spot. Just kidding. If both are top 4, just send them to the UCL.
In all honesty, I don’t want cups to become the marginalised sideshow they seem to be heading towards. It should be spectacular that Hull or Millwall reached recent finals. It should be euphoric for players and fans alike. I want to see Elton John cry again and for it to not be because somebody recognised him at a resort playing tennis.