Put the League Cup out of its misery

People in English football are getting concerned about the diminished status of the FA Cup. This was shown last Sunday when Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini fielded a very weakened team in the fifth round – against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Not surprisingly his team of youngsters got hammered 5-1 much to the disappointed of the BBC TV audience. Pellegrini picked this team because he wanted to prioritise the Champions League tie against Dynamo Kiev on Wednesday and the League Cup Final against Liverpool tomorrow. People have suggested scrapping replays, offering the winner of the Cup a place in the Champions League (whether or not UEFA would allow that is highly debatable) or “rigging” the draw so that if a lower division club drew a Premier League team it would automatically have home advantage). But there is a simple solution staring every one in the face – scrap the League Cup.

The League Cup has existed for 55 years which is a long time for a bad idea to last even by the standards of UK sport. The competition was called “Hardaker’s folly” after the man who proposed it Football League Secretary Alan Hardaker. Hardaker was anti Europe* –  in 1955 he browbeat English Champions Chelsea into snubbing the first European Cup – and saw the new competition as an alternative to European Football. But the Times Newspaper (May 30th 1960) called the League Cup “useless”.  At the start the League Cup was not popular. Plenty of First Division clubs refused to enter and in its first season the Cup’s average attendance was 10,556 barely more than the average third division attendance.

The League Cup might have died a death but two events saved it. In 1967 the League Cup Final was moved to Wembley and UEFA inexplicably offered the winners a place in the UEFA Cup. Only then did all 92 Football League clubs enter the competition but it was never as highly regarded as the FA Cup or European competitions. Examples : No third division club has ever even reached the FA Cup Final. Two third division clubs have won the League Cup (QPR 1967, Swindon 1969) and two Fourth tier clubs have reached the Final (Rochdale 1962, Bradford as recently as 2013). No fourth tier team has even reached the FA Cup Semi Finals. In 1974-75 not one top division club reached even the Semi Finals. Admittedly (see earlier post) 1974-75 was a bit of a “silly season” and two of the Semi Finalists were Manchester United and Aston Villa who are usually top division clubs while another of the quartet Norwich City are a current Premier League club. Only fourth division Chester were real minnows. But still it doesn’t say much for the competition that there was a season where no top division club got to the Semi Finals.

The ridiculous thing about the Football League Cup is that the Premier League clubs are not members of the Football League so they really should not be in it. The big clubs have been fielding reserve teams since at least 1994 where Manchester United fielded young unkowns like Beckham, Neville, Butt and Scholes at Port Vale. Port Vale fans were so angry they wrote to the local paper saying that United should refund fan’s admission money and MP Joan Walley even got involved! United had the last laugh – they won the game 2-1 and the four players mentioned became superstars – but it showed how little the competition was regarded.

Getting rid of the League Cup would have the advantage of freeing up five midweeks. The three rounds of midweek games played in January, February and March could be moved to September, October and November. That would free up five midweeks for FA Cup Replays, rest or even to allow England manager Roy Hodgson to hold a couple of midweek training camps. Incidentally if UEFA staged the last sixteen of the Champions League over two weeks instead of four that would free up another couple of weeks. Hopefully if UEFA get a new President he has the sense to do it.

I suspect if the League Cup did not exist it would not be invented now. Of all the countries in Europe outside the UK only France has a League Cup. Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal and Holland somehow survive without one. Besides the Football League should go too. Most sports in the UK only have one governing body. Football has the FA, the Football League and the Premier League who spend as much of their time arguing with each other as running football. A single governing body for football would make sense but unfortunately too many nonentities would lose their jobs which makes it a non runner. After all it’s not just in FIFA that turkeys don’t vote for Christmas!

The common sense thing to do to cut down fixture congestion is to put the League Cup out of its misery. For most of its history the big clubs have not taken it seriously. To be honest – like the not dissimilar Benson and Hedges Cup in cricket which was one competition too many – once it is gone it will soon be forgotten. To quote Peter Cook who played a deranged army big-wig “The time has come Perkins for a useless sacrifice”. To cut down fixture congestion and help the FA Cup it is time to sacrifice the League Cup. Let’s put it out of its misery.

*A joke of mine is that Hardaker would be kicked out of UKIP for being too anti European!

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Why FIFA’s presidential election won’t solve their problems

Today should be a day of celebration for football fans. It will mark the end of Sepp Batter’s pathetic disastrous 18 years as FIFA President when his successor is elected. But it is highly likely it won’t be. While some people will doubtless say anyone would be an improvement on ghastly Blatter the five candidates to succeed him are not a distinguished lot (to put it mildly).

Three of them in my opinion would be disasters. One is Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa from Bahrain. He is the former head of Bahrain’s FA and a member of the country’s Royal Family. He has also repeatedly had to deny human rights abuses including torture of his own national team’s players. Even the suspicion of human rights abuses should disqualify a person from being a candidate but incredibly he is the favourite.

Gianni Infantimo from Switzerland is UEFA’S General Secretary. This nonentity is only standing because his boss Michel Plattini is banned from standing. Yet incredibly the English FA is supporting him for some reason that must remain a mystery. As a Swiss football administrator he would represent more of the same (Blatter is Swiss). Incredibly the other European standing Frenchman Jerone Champagne is even worse. This twit said in 2014 that “Football needs to free itself from the shackles of European law”. Garbage. Football should have to obey every law. Everybody else does. That quote on its own should have got him booted out of football for ever. Yet he is a FIFA Presidential candidate. Unbelievable!

That leaves the only two even vaguely credible candidates. Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan was the man who had the courage to challenge Blatter last year gaining 73 votes and denying Blatter a first ballot majority. Yet like Michael Heseltine who challenged Margaret Thatcher for the Conservative Party leadership in 1990 he is unlikely to get the ultimate prize. I suspect he got his votes last year simply because he was not Blatter. But a lot of the FIFA presidential electors are – unbelievably – still loyal to Blatter and would vote for him if they could (like Conservative MPs in 1990 who were loyal to Thatcher and hated Heseltine for challenging her). I doubt those who did not vote for Ali last year will vote for him today.

The one I would pick on the ” least worse” basis is South African Tokyo Sexwalle. At least he has some experience of real life – he was an anti apartheid campaigner in South Africa and spent thirteen years on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela – plus the fact that it would be a good idea for a black African to be FIFA President considering white men have made such a balls up of the job. Yet incredibly he is struggling to get votes from his own continent with rumours that the African FAs will vote en masse for Sheikh Salman. One feels knowing the history of FIFA there might be something dodgy going on…

But why is the field so mediocre? Simply because of a rule which is blatantly discriminatory. In order to be a candidate for FIFA President you must have two years involvement in football. But it is football people that got FIFA into this mess in the first place. And it is highly unlikely a football man (since most of the football establishment are men) would be able (or willing) to clean up FIFA. Remember it is the American FBI and the Swiss police that exposed the mess in FIFA in the first place.

The history of sport shows sport does not reform itself but when it is reformed it is done by outsiders. Baseball was cleaned up after the “Black Sox” scandal by judge – and the sport’s first commissioner – Kennesaw Mountain Landis. Cricket was revolutionised in the 1970s by an outsider – Kerry Packer. The revolution in UK football coverage brought by the Premier League was also done by outsiders – Rupert Murdoch of Sky and then Tottenham Hotspur chairman (more famous for being the hirer and firer in the UK version of “the Apprentice”) Alan Sugar. And coming up to date the current story about match fixing in tennis was broken by the BBC and Buzzfeed – more outsiders.

It does not matter who wins tomorrow. Sporting establishments do not change voluntarily. To quote former UK Prime Minister James Callaghan ” Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas “. Sure some cosmetic reforms to appease the hoi polloi might be promised but it will be as little as FIFA think they can get away with. FIFA like the EU is unreformable. The only solution is for the European and American FAs – whose companies bankroll FIFA – to break away set up a new FIFA and start again. But as they won’t have the courage to do it nothing will change in FIFA. Depressing, isn’t it?

Time for TV freedom for football

There were two big Scottish Cup replays this week. Kilmarnock v Rangers and the Edinburgh Derby between Hibs and Hearts. Both as it turned out resulted in victories for the Championship teams Rangers and Hibs. Either – or both – would have been excellent matches for live TV coverage but neither were shown. More to the point neither were allowed to be shown. That is because there were Champions League matches being played on the same nights (the 16th and 17th) and in a pathetic example of protectionism UEFA do not allow any country to show domestic matches at the same time as Champions League matches. Which begs the question : Why? The Champions League is the globe’s most popular club competition. It does not need protection. Scotland does not even have a team in the Champions League. How on earth would Scottish Cup ties threaten the Champions League’s superiority? And in any case shouldn’t viewers have a choice of what they want to watch? It’s called competition. Every other industry believes in it. The rule is probably illegal anyway. UEFA used to have the opposite rule saying that FAs could ban matches from other countries if domestic matches were on – the infamous Article 14. This rule was eventually declared illegal in court. Sky TV should take UEFA to court to get this rule abolished. It is highly likely they would win.

But this lack of support for consumer choice does not just apply to UEFA. There is a rule in the UK that Premier League matches that kick off at 3pm UK time cannot be shown live on TV (in fact any match that kicks off at 3pm cannot be shown so if say Real Madrid or Barcelona match kicks off at 3pm Sky can’t show that match either). More ridiculously the ban lasts until 5.15pm so that if Real Madrid v Barcelona kicks off at 5pm on Saturday as it did in 2014 Sky cannot show the first fifteen minutes. Pathetic.

What annoys me is that this only applies to the UK. Fans abroad can see the 3pm kick offs live. Even in the Republic of Ireland they get a 3pm kick off live on Setanta Sport. Why should foreign fans get extra games live?

Why football is allowed to get away with this antiquated protectionism is a mystery. Even other sports don’t have blackouts. For example during the cricket season England’s Test and One Day International matches are shown live on Sky but County matches are played during the Tests. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) don’t black out Test matches to protect County cricket so why should football be allowed to protect the lower divisions? Lower division matches are played on Champions League nights when games are shown live so why not on Saturdays?

If I were in charge every Premier League match would be live on TV. With one caveat. In the US every Major League Baseball (MLB) game is shown live on line. But the matches are not shown live in the home team’s market unless the home team agrees.  A UK equivalent would mean that Liverpool and Everton could stop their home matches being shown in Merseyside, the Manchester clubs could do likewise in Greater Manchester and the London clubs could do the same in Greater London.

The Premier League is missing a trick here. Baseball has an internet site – MLB.TV – and a mobile /tablet app – At Bat (the latter I use and it is excellent).  For a yearly subscription you get every MLB game which is not subject to blackout regulations. Why the Premier League does not have a website or an app to stream it’s games is a mystery. An MLB.TV subscription costs up to $129.99 a year. I’m sure there are a lot of fans – especially abroad – who would be willing to pay to see Premier League games on their computer, mobile or tablet and it would be a useful revenue stream for the Premier League. And if the example of baseball is anything to go buy it will not effect TV rights. An example : The LA Dodgers’ current TV deal is worth $8.35 BILLION (yes Billion!) over 25 years. That equates to $334 MILLION a year for one franchise. Puts the money in the Premier League into perspective. But it shows that the existence of MLB.TV and At Bat has not affected the sport’s TV revenue.

But surely the public should have the right to watch the games they want on TV. In society protectionism is dead and free trade is the principle. What has football got to be scared of by enhancing free trade? In fact they should be forced to. The Government should make both UEFA’s rule and the Premier League blackout illegal. Time to get in line with society.

Leicester’s success recalls another East Midlands miracle

The Leicester City bandwagon shows no sign of crashing. Quite the opposite in fact. The surprise Premier League leaders looked seriously impressive in beating Manchester City 3-1 at the Etihad on Saturday to go five (repeat five) points clear at the top of the Premier League table. For the first time the bookmakers have Claudio Ranieri’s team as title favourites (at odds of 7-4). If results go their way on Sunday when the top four play each other Leicester could go seven points clear (if they win at Arsenal and the Manchester City v Tottenham game is a draw). We would really have to take them seriously as title contenders.

If Leicester do go on to win the title it would be the biggest shock in English football since Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest won Division One (what the top division was called before the formation of the Premier League in 1992) in 1977-78. It is fascinating to compare the two as there are similarities between the two teams – and differences.

The key similarity between Leicester and Forest is that both teams were lucky to be in the top division at all. First Leicester. On March 21st 2015 they lost 4-3 at Tottenham. It left Leicester bottom of the table after 29 games with just 19 points and four wins all season. They were seven points short of safety and were doomed to relegation unless something remarkable happened. Which it did. Leicester won seven out of their last nine games and drew another. Only champions Chelsea beat them. They finished on 41 points six points clear of the bottom three. They won more points (22) in their last nine games than they did in the first twenty nine (19).

If that was remarkable Forest’s story was even more astonishing. On May 7th 1977 they played their last Division Two game of the season, beating Millwall 1-0 – the goal was an own goal another piece of luck. They were in third place in the table (the top three went up without play offs in those days). But Forest were not promoted yet. Nearest rivals Bolton were two points behind with two games to play (it was two points for a win at the time). Three points from those two games and Bolton would go up instead of Forest. But on May 14th 1977 Bolton lost 0-1 at home to Wolves and Forest were promoted while they were in Spain (not the first time this happened to Clough. In 1972 his Derby team needed Arsenal and Leeds not to win in order to win the Division One title. Incredibly neither did and Derby were champions. They clinched the title when they were in Spain just as Forest were in Spain when they clinched promotion. Clough was indisputably a great manager. But he was also lucky).

Understandably neither Leicester or Forest were given much of a chance of doing much. Especially as in the case of Leicester they changed their manager in the summer of 2015 when after a racism scandal in Thailand which saw his son sacked manager Nigel Pearson was also sacked. He was replaced by Ranieri best known for being the first Chelsea manager of the Roman Abramovich era.

But Leicester and Forest both got off to fliers. And here again two similarities. Both Forest and Leicester got off to fliers but were written off. A joke about Leicester were they were like the elephant at the top of a tree. No one knew how they got there but we know they’ll fall down eventually.  Both Forest and Leicester’s first defeats were against Arsenal and heavy (0-3 for Forest and 2-5 for Leicester) and when those defeats happened it was thought Forest and Leicester would collapse. Neither did. On October 4th 1977 Forest went to the top of the table and were never headed again. But it was not until they beat Manchester United 4-0 at Old Trafford on December 17th that they became title favourites. Leicester first hit the top of the table on November 21st 2015. Since then they have been never lower than second or more than two points behind the leaders. And (as I mentioned earlier) they became title favourites with a win in Manchester just like Forest.

Whether Leicester emulate Forest remains to be seen. But there are similarities between the two teams namely the managerial skills of Ranieri and Clough and unknown players rising to unexpected heights. For Leicester the attacking success of Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy plus the less heralded contributions of Danny Drinkwater, Robert Huth and Kasper Schmeichel. For Forest the emergence of players like Tony Woodcock and John Robertson as First Division quality players.

Also both were shrewd in the transfer market. Mahrez and Vardy were bought for cheap fees. Forest signed Kenny Burns and Larry Lloyd for cheap fees because they were considered to be a trouble maker and past his best respectively. Only Clough thought differently and was rewarded.

But if Leicester win the League it will be a far better achievement. First apart from Liverpool the big clubs were not as good as they are now. Arsenal, Chelsea and both Manchester clubs weren’t as highly placed and Tottenham were in Division Two. Secondly Forest were not a poor club. For all Clough’s managerial skills would they have won the League had they not signed Peter Shilton the best keeper in England and a player arguably worth ten points a season for £250000? That was a big fee at the time – the UK transfer record was then £440,000 which Liverpool paid Celtic for Kenny Dalglish. And less than a year after winning the title in February 1979 they became the first British club to pay a million pounds for a player when they signed Trevor Francis. Leicester will not be breaking the British transfer record anytime soon. While Forest’s success was remarkable it was due to a great manager in Clough. Most teams that win the title for the first time in ages or ever win because of a great manager (Clough at Derby and Forest, Alf Ramsey at Ipswich  and Don Revie at Leeds to name but three) or a rich benefactor (Blackburn, Chelsea and Manchester City). Leicester have neither. Ranieri has never won a League title in a long career. Leicester’s Thai owners have not thrown money around. The team that beat City cost £22 million which by current standards is peanuts. Liverpool flop Christian Benteke cost £32 million on his own. If Leicester win the title there is a case for saying it would be the best achievement in UK football history.

If Mankading is immoral make it illegal

The Cricket Under 19 World Cup is not usually an event that gets publicity but this year’s version in Bangladesh has. This is partly because of the pre event pull out of Australia for security reasons, partly because New Zealand and holders South Africa were upset by Nepal and Namibia respectively – but mainly because of a controversial incident in the game between West Indies and Zimbabwe where the winners would qualify for the quarter finals.

The match went to the last over with Zimbabwe needing three runs to win with one wicket left. The West Indies bowler Keemo Paul instead of bowling the first ball of the last over stopped to flick off the bails with non striker Richard Ngarava out of his ground. The umpire had no choice but to give him out after referring to TV replays and West Indies had won by two runs.

Cue uproar. Although Paul’s actions were legal under the laws of cricket running out a batsman for backing up too far is considered immoral. So much so the action even has a name – “Mankading”. This is named after the first man to dismiss a batsman by this method in Test cricket the Indian bowler Vinoo Mankad who on 13 December 1947 he ran out Australian Bill Brown who was the non striker backing up. Although he had done this to Brown earlier in the tour it was considered unsportsmanlike by the Australian press and is considered taboo. It has only happened three more times in Test cricket and not since March 1979. In one day cricket it has happened four times the last occasion was to England’s Joss Buttler in 2014. And it always causes controversy. England’s one day captain Eoin Morgan tweeted the following :

” Disgraceful behaviour in the U19CWC. WIs should be ashamed ”

While Buttler – a victim of “Mankading” himself  – said on social media :

“Can’t believe what I’ve just seen. Embarrassing.”.

And Australia’s coach Darren Lehmann weighed in with ” Unbelievable. Not out”.

But the fact is under the laws of cricket it was out. Paul had broken no law – just a vague unwritten moral code called the “Spirit of Cricket”. And unwritten laws always cause trouble precisely because they are unwritten. But there is a simple solution. If ” Mankading ” is so taboo why not make it illegal. There have been three examples in the history of one day cricket where actions were taken that were not illegal but considered unsportsmanlike or against the spirit of cricket. On each occasion the law was changed to make the action in question illegal.

The first one was on May 24th 1979. Somerset were away to Worcestershire in the Benson and Hedges Cup. They would qualify for the quarter finals unless they lost to Worcestershire Glamorgan beat the Minor Counties (South) – a certainty unless it rained – and both counties overtook Somerset on bowling strike rate ( number of balls bowled divided by number of wickets taken) which was used as a tie breaker if teams were level on points. So Somerset captain Brain Rose hatched a plan. He would bat first and declare after one over. It would mean that Somerset would lose the game but Worcestershire could not overtake them on strike rate and Somerset would be in the quarter finals. And he did. The match score was Somerset 1-0 declared in one over lost to Worcestershire 2-0 after 1.4 overs. Somerset were in the quarter finals.

But not for long. Although what Rose did was legal it was considered a “disgrace to cricket”, ” farce” and ” not in the spirit of the game “. Glamorgan – denied a quarter final place by Rose’s scheme – appealed to the Test and County Cricket Board (TCCB) and Somerset were disqualified for not complying with the spirit of cricket. The rules were amended to prevent declarations in one day cricket. Rose’s scheme was now illegal.

Later in 1979 came another incident. In a World Series Cup game on November 28 1979 West Indies needed three runs off the last ball of the match to win. Although star all rounder Ian Botham was bowling to number eleven Colin Croft England captain Mike Brearley positioned all ten fielders including the wicketkeeper on the boundary in order to make it harder for Croft to score the required boundary. Botham bowed Croft but again Brearley’s tactics – though legal – were considered against the spirit of cricket. Again the rules were changed to stop the scheme – in this case to limit the number of fielders allowed on the boundary (at the end of a one day innings teams are limited to five men outside the 30 metre circle).

The last example ” celebrated ” – if that is the correct word – its 35th anniversary on February 1st this year. In a World Series Cup game between Australia and New Zealand the Kiwis needed six to tie the game off the final ball. Australian captain Greg Chappell ordered his younger brother Trevor to bowl the ball underarm – that is to roll it along the ground making it impossible for Kiwi batsman Brian McKechnie to hit a six. Chappell junior obliged (one of the problems with sport in my opinion is its authoritarianism. Players are expected to obey the captain or coach making it very difficult for Trevor Chappell to disobey his captain – never mind his older brother). McKechnie blocked the ball threw his bat away and the controversy begun. The great commentator Richie Benaud was furious calling it a “disgraceful performance from a captain who got his sums wrong today” and even New Zealand Prime Minister Robert Muldoon called it an act of cowardice appropriate for a team wearing yellow. But again the Chappell plan was legal under the rules of cricket at the time but considered against the spirit of cricket. Again the rules were changed to make underarm bowling illegal.

Cricket has to make up its mind about “Mankading” once and for all. If they think it is a legitimate tactic stop complaining when anyone does it. If they think it is unfair make it illegal. Both are legitimate points of view. But the current position – where “Mankading” is legal but if someone does it they cop abuse from press fans and players is unsustainable. Cricket must decide. Is “Mankading” fair or not? If it is stop moaning about it. If it isn’t make it illegal. The current fudging of the issue is of no use to anyone.