THE FA Cup came around last week and the usual complaints about weakened teams came to the fore, notably with regards to Premier League sides fielding squad players. Interesting to hear people express their horror that Liverpool, for example, had struggled to a draw with Plymouth because they had a second XI on the field. What did they really expect?
We live in a strange time for football where nothing seems to matter other than the Premier League and qualification for the UEFA Champions League. Everything else is considered less important and therefore, there is a certain amount of acceptance that clubs can put out below-strength selections for cup games.
I was present at the West Ham versus Manchester City game at the London Stadium a week ago and I was delighted that City fielded as many of their first choice players as they could. There were 56,000 people at the game and although the Hammers’ fans went home even more disgruntled than they had been before kick-off, I felt happy that I had got to see some top players in action. Teams like Liverpool got what they deserved, but the fans were cheated. Sometimes it might be better to bill such games as “Liverpool XI v Plymouth Argyle”!
First team games should require teams to field their strongest possible line-ups. The same applies to non-league football – too often the FA Trophy and other competitions are seen as an opportunity to put out weakened sides. This subject has been raised often enough, but if people – loyal supporters – are travelling to watch their team, the competition, as well as the fans, deserves to be treated with respect.
We all know that managers regard league football as the priority, and fair enough – it is the bread and butter of the game at any level. But in reality, most teams have no chance of winning their league and aside from avoiding the relegation zone, some will have limited chance of any success year-in, year-out. Cups provide the only avenue of glory, so why not give it your best shot?
The problem pervades every level of English football. Our senior teams are not committed enough to European football aside from the Champions League – look how cheaply so many of them go out of the Europa League. And just see how seriously your local non-league club takes the county or league cup.
If, as some claim, there is too much football – and I believe that there is too much non-league football at levels below step 1 and 2 – then (perish the thought) why not trim-up the main leagues? Take them down to 16 or 18 if necessary. Smaller Ryman and EvoStik leagues would keep Saturdays free for league football and allow midweeks to be used solely for knockout competitions. It might just hone the appetite and increase crowds. Sometimes, you have to wonder if less is more in non-league football.
Every year, the broadcasting media tries to talk-up the FA Cup as the greatest cup competition in the world but at the same time, our top teams damage its credibility year-by-year. Anyone who recalls the golden age of FA Cup final day will be aware that one of its big attractions was that it provided a distraction from the weekly slog of the league campaign and that teams who were not having a great time could put away their anxieties and perhaps enjoy a cup run. It seems that it is no longer relevant – just remember when Wigan won the cup in 2013. We no longer want to live in the moment and enjoy those isolated morsals of success that become ingrained in a club’s history. Struggling against relegation every year, or a memorable day when your team touched the heights? For most clubs, there’s no contest in that argument, if only they realised it!
Football fans don’t really protest enough about their lot, although I was at a county cup game once and when the teams were read out, a long-time supporter of the home club turned round and went home annoyed that his team had fielded a mixture of trialists, squad make-weights and only two or three regulars. They lost the game quite heavily, by the way. Any game that is billed as a first team fixture should demand the best possible participants whether it is the FA Cup, the Herts Senior Cup or the Ryman League Cup. Just consider that if you turn up to a restaurant for a meal and “steak and chips” is on the menu but you’re given a low-grade burger because the chef has decided he doesn’t want to use his best beef. Would you really accept that?
This article first appeared in The Non-League Paper on Sunday January 15, 2017