Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert raised eyebrows this week with his comments about the FA Cup, questioning the importance of the competition.
“If they (Premier League managers) were being honest, they probably would do. Not just because of the money but survival in the league is vital.
“It is realistic. That is the nature of it. If anyone says any differently then I am not so sure they will be telling the truth because the Premier League is the most vital thing that anyone wants to get into and we are no different.
“Cup competitions, if you can get through, then absolutely I want to get through. I don’t want to not get through but your main one is the league.
“We don’t have a massive squad and points are really important. If you are honest enough people will say the same.”
As a supporter, I typically would loathe this type of philosophy towards the world’s oldest cup competition. However as a realist, I know Lambert is correct and it isn’t just a Premier League phenomena but extends to the top sides in the Championship also who are chasing promotion to the Premier League.
Four years ago, I publicly advocated a view that I would prefer Manchester City to win the FA Cup than finish in a Champions League spot. That season the Blues finished fifth and were eliminated in the 5th Round of the FA Cup. The following season, when I advocated the very same view, I was slayed by my fellow City supporters on message boards. The money and glory involved in the UEFA Champions League trumped any domestic silverware save winning the league itself, a goal that was not attainable during the 2010-11 season. That season, the Blues won the FA Cup and finished third in the league thus achieving both goals, but I found myself in the minority at that time.
Three years later, I see the realism more probably because Manchester City have won domestic honors. For example I would not be bothered if the Blues were knocked out of the competition tomorrow by Blackburn provided that the club wins the League Cup. For supporters of other clubs, the opportunity for silverware trumps all.
However, more and more club supporters I find are becoming realistic about the FA Cup. I was recently on a Burnley message board where a Clarets supporter said “We’re not going to win the FA Cup, and going far may hurt our promotion chances, so losing to Southampton may help us.”
Another comment I saw was from a Liverpool supporter concerned about squad depth. “We must finish in the top 4 to keep Suarez, We cannot afford to have replay after replay with all our injuries.”
The reality is that with one of the tightest Premier League seasons ever, the top flight clubs fall into one of three categories. Those trying to win the Premier League title. The second category are teams fighting to qualify for Europe. And the third category are those teams trying to avoid relegation. With the race for all three so tight, clubs can’t afford to risk injuries or extra matches (plus replays) to sacrifice the riches of Premier League TV money or European qualification.
The timing of the FA Cup Third Round couldn’t be worse.
It seems today the romance of the FA Cup, something I believed was still alive and well a few seasons ago, is now largely limited to sides in League 1, League 2 and non-league teams. While some clubs such as Newcastle United, who are in a prolonged trophy drought (as Manchester City was when I first made my comments), may emphasize the competition, most seem content to take it as it comes and focus on the league instead.
For those of us who love English football, this is truly a sad state of affairs but is the harsh reality of the Premier League era. Staying in the league or qualifying for Europe is more important than silverware. For ambitious Championship sides, promotion trumps any piece of silverware that could possibly be won.
It’s a new era in the game, and while romanticism is lovely, reality wins the day.