Liverpool, Klopp and the FA Cup

THE RECENT decision by Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp to field a development squad in the FA Cup for the club’s replay with Shrewsbury Town has, quite rightly, not been well received. Klopp devalued the competition by going AWOL and tarnished his image with the game’s followers. It’s a pity as Klopp has been universally popular since arriving in England, but his attitude is consistent with how some see the competition today – an inconvenience.

Teams have been fielding weakened teams for some years, largely because they can get away with it and still win their cup tie. In Klopp’s case, it is clear that Liverpool’s priority this season is to win the Premier League, something they have almost achieved. There’s no denying that Liverpool will, when the crown eventually gets placed on their heads, deserve their prize, but there’s a little arrogance in the way Klopp has handled the FA Cup.

The popular view in the past was that only in England did the domestic cup competition get treated so seriously. The facts don’t necessarily support that misconception. The fact is, the reason the British newspapers would beat on about second-rate German, Italian and Spanish FA Cups not being a priority was based on media coverage in their own countries. In the UK, we could bleat on about the fact the FA Cup was “the greatest cup competition in the world” and we would enjoy extraordinary feats such as “giant killing”. We interpreted a competition with 500-odd teams in as representing the strength of the format rather than the fact all bar 25 teams had next to no chance of winning it.

In this age of rediscovered xenophobia, some people claim the decline of the FA Cup is down to foreign coaches not taking “cups seriously”. Since 1996-97, there have been 20 occasions where an overseas coach has led his team to glory. The last Brit manager to win the FA Cup was Harry Redknapp in 2008. The competition has been treated with such “disdain” that Arséne Wenger, José Mourinho, Rafa Benitez, Antonio Conte, Carlo Ancelotti and Pep Guardiola have all won it. The one manager who has actually treated it with disdain is Klopp, who has yet to win the grand old trophy.

Managers always consider that league success is the true measure of their ability, and that is understandable. In Klopp’s case, half the Mersey nation’s hopes rest on his shoulders. That first league title since 1990 is drawing near but he was wrong and misunderestimated the currency of the competition. We like Klopp, but his attitude to the FA Cup has been disrespectful.

It is also wrong to assume foreigners lack an understanding of the value of the FA Cup and its place in English football’s rich heritage. The cup final was watched all over the world, the folklore of football is not actually built on leagues and league games, it is based on the one-off occasions that cut-throat football creates – hence, people remember Arsenal’s fabled 1989 league title win not because of their consistency, but because of the last-ditch victory at Anfield. Manchester City’s last two Premier titles, despite the records, the points and the goals, are overshadowed by the 2012 triumph clinched in the dying seconds.

Other countries have their grand finales, too. German football looks to the 1973 DFB Final when Günter Nezter fired home a winner for Gladbach against Köln. If you travel back to the 1970s when the FA Cup was at its cultural peak, Barca and Real won five Spanish cups between them, Italy’s big three won five Coppa Italias and the DFB Pokal was won by Bayern, Schalke, Frankfurt and Köln as well as Gladbach. In other words, the big clubs took it very seriously.

As for England, there were nine different winners in the 1970s, including relative underdogs Sunderland, West Ham, Sunderland, Southampton and Ipswich. You could argue that the FA Cup had weaker winners than the other main leagues, although some might counter that with the claim that England’s FA Cup underlined the strength-in-depth of the 92-club structure.

Liverpool’s decision hit at the heart of that very belief and implied the FA Cup is not all that important any more to them. Shrewsbury lost out on TV money as a result while Liverpool gave themselves breathing space for their own crusade. The Football Association should issue a timely reminder that the competition has been going longer than Liverpool and that the club’s FA Cup history precedes the arrival of Jürgen Klopp. A one-season ban may be an appropriate response. Not happy, big fellow? It’s only the FA Cup – you should worry.




Photo: PA

Calling in on….Shrewsbury Town – Floreat Salopia

P1050012A year ago, Shrewsbury Town and Luton Town were two divisions apart. Shrewsbury were relegated at the end of 2013-14 and Luton, after half a decade of frustration, were promoted from the Skrill Premier. When the two sides met on August 30, their performances suggested they could well be two divisions apart again in 2015-16.

Shrewsbury’s out-of-town new ground, the Greenhous Meadow, is unremarkable, but it’s neat, fit-for-purpose and has considerably more room to manoeuvre than the club’s old home, Gay Meadow.

Shrewsbury isn’t a club that has been showered in garlands down the years, but one of the high spots of the Shrews’ history is a FA Cup run in 1979 that saw them reach the last eight. “The spirit of ’79” is trumpeted in more than one banner dotted around the ground. It was a cup run that included a 2-0 win against a star-studded Manchester City side. At the end of 1978-79, under Graham Turner, Shrewsbury won the Third Division (now League One). That season was arguably the pinnacle of the club’s achievements.

But Shrewsbury’s greatest claim to fame could well be in the form of a player whose goalscoring record in English football may never be beaten. Look at any record book and the name Arthur Rowley will be found – 434 goals in 619 games for West Bromwich Albion, Fulham, Leicester City and of course, Shrewsbury.

P1050002 (300x199)Rowley’s first season as player-manager with the club, in 1958-59, saw them win promotion from the old Fourth Division. He scored 38 goals in 43 games in the process. He remained player-manager until 1965 and then stayed on as manager for a further three years before joining Sheffield United in 1968. Obviously, he has legendary status at the club.

It’s good to see other former players commemorated in a “walk of fame” that skirts the front entrance of the ground. It was interesting to see players like Ken Mulhearn and Alan Durban included. Both won Football League Championship medals with Manchester City (1968) and Derby Country (1972) respectively.

What Shrewsbury would give to have players like Rowley, Mulhearn and Durban in their ranks today. But when Game of the People visited the Greenhous, the club was celebrating new heroes after the Shrews beat Premier League new boys Leicester City in the Capital One (Football League) Cup. In a week when below-strength top sides were punished by lower level clubs, Shrewsbury won 1-0 at Leicester thanks to a first-half Andy Mangan goal. Shrewsbury manager Micky Mellon was keen to ensure his players “get the pat on the back they deserve” for beating Premier opposition.

That victory may have explained why 5,888 people turned up to see Shrewsbury play Luton. It was the biggest gate of the season at the Greenhous so far, no doubt boosted by a large contingent from Luton.

P1050003 (300x287)It may also have had something to do with a more than decent start to the new campaign by Mellon’s side. Unbeaten before facing Luton, they had won all their home games, the last one a 4-0 victory against Accrington Stanley. Mangan, who joined the club in the summer from Forest Green Rovers, had been in good form since arriving at Shrewsbury, but he missed the Luton game through injury.

Luton had also started well, winning 1-0 at Carlisle United on the opening day, but had failed to win any of their four league and cup games since. Adjusting to life back in the Football League may take time, but their manager, John Still is a wily operator and you just have to look at his record with Dagenham, one of the League’s most unlikely residents, to see what he can do.

He may have his work cut out this time, though. Judging Luton on their performance at Shrewsbury, the Hatters don’t look well equipped to sustain their current status.

Shrewsbury dominated the game from the start and went ahead after just three minutes. A long ball down the middle eluded the monolithic Luton defence, which struggled all afternoon for pace and alertness. Jordan Clark, who looked the best player on the pitch, received the ball and rolled it past Mark Tyler.

Shrewsbury could have built up a substantial first-half lead, but their finishing was a little suspect. James Collins should have converted at least one of the chances that came his way and Scott Vernon – an industrious forward who ran Luton ragged – went close to scoring.

P1050024 (300x225)Luton came alive for the first 10 minutes of the second half, but it didn’t take long for Shrewsbury to regain the initiative. Tyler pulled off a fine reflex save from Collins and the flame-haired Ryan Woods had a low drive that should have found the back of the net.

When Shrewsbury did score, it was down to a goalkeeping error. A free-kick by Clark looked comfortable enough for Tyler, but he flapped at the ball and it fell over the line. That was Luton finished and it was now a question of how many goals Shrewsbury could score.

Although Vernon struck the woodwork and Collins was denied again by Tyler, there were no more goals. The last drama of the game, though, was a red-card for Luton’s Matt Robinson, who cynically fouled Cameron Gayle.

With a 2-0 win, the locals were sent home happy, with cautiously optimistic talk of “going straight back up”. Luton’s fans were probably avoiding discussions around “going straight back down”. I would wager that the Luton side that runs out in, say December, will look very different to the one that capitulated so easily at Shrewsbury. As for the home side, it’s Floreat Salopia, as they say.