The death of cup competitions in the English game?

November 2, 2009

Ah, the romance of the Cup. Now the Shrewsbury match is out the way, our attentions turn to Bradford City on Friday night, and our dreams to a Wembley appearance in May. The FA Cup is a competition revered throughout the world, a competition synonymous with upsets and excitement. Or so it used to be.

Of course, at the lower end of the football spectrum it still is. This weekend is one of the big dates in the calendar for many non-league sides and their managers, who get to pit-their-wits against league opposition in the First Round proper. However, in the Premier League, most clubs would swap an FA Cup win for fourth in the league. For me, this is one of the great tragedies of the English game.

Most kids of my generation had the dream of playing at Wembley, and walking up those steps to lift the Cup for your team. Oh the joy. However, those dreams now would be shattered by some sweaty businessman in a suit.

Now I understand why a side would want to finish fourth, and that the Champions League would mean so much to players and supporters alike. However, as a player, when your career finishes, can you show your fourth place finish off to your kids? Do you get a medal for finishing fourth? Of course not.

And then there’s the supporters. We have already seen the League Cup become an insignificance in the eyes of players, managers and supporters, with thousands of empty seats at grounds all over England, and star players being left at home in the warm. Arsene Wenger fields a completely different team for the competition, proof that the cup is of no importance to him. And it is this ‘field the reserves’ attitude that makes supporters stay at home.

But where did cup competitions go so wrong in England? Well, for me it started when the third-placed team qualified for the Champions League, and also when Manchester United refused to enter the FA Cup in 2000. At least when the team who finished second qualified for the Champions League, they were fighting for the title so the European spot was a reasonable commiseration prize. Now, we have clubs who DELIBERATELY set out to come third and fourth! I wonder how many fans of Tottenham for example, would give up a fourth place finish for the FA Cup this year? Not too many I’d imagine, and I’d be certain none would for the League Cup.

So how do we bring back the magic of the cup, I hear you ask? For me, the answer is simple. Stop rewarding a club for coming fourth. Instead, ask for permission from UEFA to insert the Cup Winners into the Champions League. Instantly, we have a competition the whole country want to win again, full of drama, upsets and excitement. And most importantly, played in front of packed stadiums.

And the team who comes fourth get what they deserve. Nothing.

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