Tag Archives: FA Cup

How to have a winter break without ruining Christmas 

We are in the middle of the most choatic period in the Premier League season the festive fixtures. All Premier League teams will have played three games between Boxing Day and January 4 2017. This is a soft schedule compared to 39 years ago – in the 1977-78 season all English clubs played four games between Boxing Day and January 2 (on Boxing Day, December 27th, New Year’s Eve and January 2). Yet people are still demanding a winter break in English football – either foreign managers who think that if the rest of Europe have a winter break so should Britain – typical of the arrogant European attitude which has led to Brexit – or the FA who seem to think it will help the England national team (conveniently forgetting that the vast majority of England fans care more about their clubs than the national team and don’t want to suffer the garbage Checkatrade Trophy or lose their Christmas entertainment on the off chance it can help a bad team to beat Iceland in a major tournament). 

As I wrote before those who want a Christmas shut down forget that both other sport in Britain (Rugby, Darts and Horse Racing to name but three) and sport in other English speaking countries (the NBA, NFL and NHL in the US, cricket in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) play on in the festive season). And as the EU referendum surely confirmed we in the UK have more in common with our English speaking friends than Europe even if the UK “Remoaners” don’t accept this. 

But even if we did have a winter break why should it mean the end of the Christmas fixtures? Just because most of Europe has a winter break at Christmas doesn’t mean to say we have to. In my opinion there is another option for a winter break that would also preserve the Christmas fixtures. 

That is not the period after the New Year (ie January). Traditionally the first Saturday in January is the day of the third round of the FA Cup and moving it out of January would devalue the competition. The FA should know this as they already moved the FA Cup third round from January to December – in the 1999-2000 season. It was a total disaster and the third round was immediately restored to its traditional date in the calendar. The FA would be incredibly stupid even by their standards if they mucked about with the scheduling of their crown jewel again. 

I’m surprised that nobody has thought of having a winter break in the Saturdays immediately preceding Christmas. For one thing in the old days before season tickets became popular that was generally the time of the season that had the lowest gates as fans went Christmas shopping with their families. If the Saturdays immediately before Christmas were football free fans could do their Christmas shopping without missing their team play. 

Here is how it would work using this year’s dates. The last round of Premier League games before the break would have been on the week of November 29-30. The next four Saturdays (December 3,10,17 and 24) would be the break. The season would resume on Boxing Day and the Christmas programme would start. The only games on would be the European games on December 7-9 but other countries (ie Eastern European ones) already play European games during winter breaks so if they can do it…

For this to work out the football authorities would have to sacrifice the League Cup which as I’ve wrote before is a useless tournament that should never have been invented and reached the end of its limited usefulness in the mid 1990s when Manchester United started fielding reserve teams in the competition. If you got rid of the League Cup itfrees up five midweeks which could be filled with the Premier League games that are currently played in December. For example this season the Premier League games that were played on December 3, 10, 13/14 and 17 could have been moved to the midweeks of September 20-21, October 25-26, November 29-30 and January 24-25. You have your winter break. 

Personally I don’t want a winter break but that is because everybody that wants it wants to sacrifice the Christmas programme which would be stupid as it draws the highest attendances and is clearly popular with the public.

It is interesting to note that there are people in Spain who would like La Liga to play on Boxing Day. Whether or not that happens I don’t know. But if Spain want to play in the festive season why should we stop? Especially as – as I have shown – there is a way to have a winter break and to preserve the tradition of both the Christmas programme and the FA Cup….

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Why Parks is wrong about the Scottish Cup

There is a big event in Scottish football on Sunday when Rangers play Celtic at Hampden Park in the Semi Final of the Scottish Cup – only the second derby between the Glasgow rivals since Rangers were liquidated and relegated to the fourth tier of Scottish football in 2012. But I saw something interesting in today’s Daily Record about the other Semi Final between Hibernian and Dundee United that I would like to write about.

Neither Hibs or United are in very good form at the moment. United have been stuck at the bottom of the Premiership for most of the season, have only won two of their last seven games are eight points adrift of safety and to all intents and purposes are doomed to relegation. Hibs at one time were close enough to Rangers to suggest they might deny the Ibrox club the top spot in the Championship and automatic promotion to the Premiership. But they have only won two games out of eight during which time they have lost the League Cup Final to Ross County and seen their automatic promotion hopes go up in smoke.

Gordon Parks is scathing about both teams in today’s Daily Record.  Under the headline “Arabs (United’s nickname) and Hibs have winged it to final after absolutely awful form” he starts the article by saying that “Dundee United and Hibs are in danger of bringing the Scottish Cup into disrepute” and adding that the Scottish Cup “is a competition which, clearly, no longer sifts out the best from the rest”.

But what Parks does not realise is that a knock out competition which is unseeded like the Scottish Cup is not designed to be dominated by the best. In fact that is why UK football fans like knockout football which produces both shock results and unlikely success stories. Knockout football does not guarantee the best team wins all the time as Atletico Madrid knocking Barcelona out of the Champions League last night proves. In an unseeded format like the Scottish Cup small clubs can have a long run because big clubs knock each other out. Scottish third tier side Gretna in 2006 are the best example of this.  They made the Final without playing a top division club. This was partly because Clyde beat Celtic 2-1 in a sensational giant killing but mainly because in unseeded draws the elite clubs knocked each other out. Eventual winners Hearts beat three fellow top division clubs en route to the Final – Kilmarnock, Aberdeen and Hibs. Aberdeen had earlier put out Dundee United, and Hibs had earlier put out Rangers. So apart from Celtic Scotland’s big clubs had knocked each other out thus letting Gretna into the Final by the back door. Its called the luck of the draw!

Something similar happened in England 40 years ago in1976. Second Division Southampton won the FA Cup shocking hot favourites Manchester United in the Final. But to get to Wembley Southampton had only beaten one top division club and that was in the last 64. In the Quarter Finals they beat Fourth Division Bradford and in the Semi Finals they beat Third Division Crystal Palace. Again although Bradford and Palace beat one top division club each – Norwich and Leeds respectively – the main cause of the minnows success was the draw. As Rothmans Football Yearbook 1976-77 put it in its FA Cup review (page 484) “the giants were killing themselves”.  And the reason they were doing that was they were drawn against each other.

Ironically what Parks said about Dundee United and Hibs in the Scottish Cup could also be applied to this season’s FA Cup. Two of the last four – Crystal Palace and Watford  – have been in dreadful League form this year. Palace have won one Premier League game in 2016 Watford have won two. They have beaten five Premier League clubs between them en route to the Semi Finals (including Arsenal and Tottenham) two more than they have beaten between them in the League in 2016. (And one of those three wins was Watford beating Palace 2-1 on February 13th). But no one in England has said that Palace and Watford are bringing the FA Cup into disrepute or that they have “winged it to the Final” (Palace and Watford play each other in the Semi Finals so one of them will be in the Final).

In fact it is the unexpected success stories that make knockout football what it is. No one in England would have tipped Palace or Watford to be FA Cup finalists pre season. Nor Dundee United or Hibs in Scotland. But the purpose of cups is not to “sift out the best from the rest” – that is what the League is for. Cups are there to provide excitement and unpredictability. And the fact that Palace, Watford, Hibs and Dundee United despite their poor form can still win their respective Cups proves that the unpredictability of the Cup is still there. And that Gordon Parks is wrong.

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!