Tag Archives: Manchester United

The romance of the FA Cup is not only dead, it’s long gone.

AFC Wimbledon and a small club from the seven tier of English football apart, there was little intrigue in many of the third round FA Cup matches. ‘Giantkiller’ headlines are long gone from the competition, as the Premier League’s continued evolution moves its clubs beyond the reach of even those just trailing behind.

Photograph: Wembley, Author’s Own

Sure, there is still the odd minor upset from time to time – but the finances of today’s game in the United Kingdom mean many of the top tier clubs can play a mixture of regulars, youths and those in need of getting 90 minutes under their belt, and still record a relatively easy win over whatever lower division side throws at them.

That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of passion, excitement and entertainment on display. Dover Athletic’s fixture against Crystal Palace afforded us the opportunity to reflect on just how far the London side has come recently. They won their match comfortably in the end – the hosts’ tired legs succumbing just enough to make the vital difference after a huge effort in the opening half. The fixture might not have been settled definitely until the hour mark; the result, however, never seemed in doubt.

We then switched our attentions to Manchester City, who hilariously fell behind at home to Sheffield Wednesday. The latter are a decent side and were always going to be tricky opponents that needed to be felled with care and precision. However, City piled forward in waves after going behind and once James Milner equalised, there was an immediate fear that a winner would duly follow.

Wednesday ran themselves ragged holding on and could genuinely feel hard done by when Milner’s second hit the back of the net in added time but there was such a feeling of inevitability about it that the commentary team on the day barely acknowledged their ‘brave’ efforts before sending them packing back to the Championship. City, in contrast, were ‘relieved’ to be through to the next round and simply glad of no significant headline coming from the Etihad Stadium.

On then to neighbours United, who made the trip to Yeovil. The tie – the viewers were reminded on numerous occasions – meant a huge deal financially to the home side, who had even commissioned a once-off jersey to commemorate the occasion. Social Media did question this specific idea; however, as anyone involved with a League of Ireland club knows, you have to make hay while the sun shines and, at least in terms of football, that’s a big Premier League team coming to town.

Yeovil’s efforts on the pitch were incredible. They made United look distinctly average in the first half – and it was this encounter, more than any other over the five days, that stood out as an example of what the FA Cup third round really means for football’s minnows today.

To beat a team well ahead of your league ranking, you need to have the perfect day and hope your opponents are not only off form and missing a few of their big talents, but that they’re also thrown further off course by playing against unknown faces, sometimes at a new ground and surrounded by a wall of hostile banter.

Manager and players alike have to get their tactics and approach absolutely spot on. In a game where the smallest of mistakes can result in disaster, the lower division sides just don’t have the physical fitness, skills and players to mix it with the biggest of the Premier League sides any longer. They cannot rely on boggy pitches to slow their opponents down or engage in an arm wrestle to ensure victory. TV money has not only moved football’s biggest names in another realm, it has also moved Premier League clubs into another stratosphere of competition.

The saving grace was, of course, the respective performances of Blyth Spartans, who were 2-0 up against Birmingham City before losing 3-2, and that of fan-owned AFC Wimbledon.

For the latter, despite being defeated by the one and only Steven Gerrard, Monday night’s game showed what being in the 3rd round of the competition still does provide smaller outfits: huge spotlight, the opportunity to showcase your football club to your own local population that are drawn in by a big name draw, as well as an opportunity to tell the world exactly what you stand for – benefits that are not too dissimilar from a League of Ireland club competing in Europe…

In the Dons’ case, the club backed the ‘Justice for the 96’ campaign and refused to move the fixture from their home ground though it could have meant a bigger financial windfall. To put the latter into context, one of Rochdale’s backroom staff described the TV income from their third round game (circa. £25,000) as being ‘huge money’ for his club.

On the night itself we were treated to anecdotes about the AFC Wimbledon players. ‘Great run from Sean Riggs, who wants to be a tattoo artist I believe’, while Adam Barrett was the man that missed the third round draw because he was wrapping Christmas presents. This is a football club, remember, whose founding trust was told starting again and forming AFC Wimbledon was “not in the wider interests of football”.

Yes, commentators, pundits and supporters alike all profess a love for the ‘beauty’ and fairytale stories of the FA Cup year in year out. Yet weakened line ups and its timing directly after the intensely busy Christmas fixture list suggest that the big players are just happy we can settle down to the real business of vying for silverware now that the heart-warming and ‘back-to-grassroots-football’ third round ties are out of the way.

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The manager dilemma…

It was amazing to see Alex Ferguson speaking to the Old Trafford crowd after his final home game in charge of Manchester United on Sunday evening. Praising the fans, players and coaching staff, he declared that everyone now had to stand by ‘our’ new manager in David Moyes.

I’ve seen and heard a lot of discussion about the appointment in recent days (Moyes hasn’t won any trophies v Moyes ‘understands’ the Manchester United way), but the reality is that only time will tell how successful he will be.

On that front, I was surprised (and in agreement) to see Moyes being given a six-year deal at his future club. It was an important statement from United – this guy is going to get the time he needs to do things his way.

Of everything I’ve read about Fergie in the past few days, a piece entitled: ‘Sir Alex Ferguson: the eulogy, the apology and the thank you’ by The Guardian’s Daniel Taylor really stood out from the rest in terms of painting a rather different side to the Scot.

I’m not a Man Utd fan, so for me Ferguson has always been the man whose teams keep winning while all around falter (and then change manager!).

It’s an amazing statistic that Chelsea have had 18 different managers in the time that Fergie has been at Old Trafford – ten alone since the arrival of owner Roman Abramovich (Ranieri, Mourinho, Grant, Scolari, Wilkins, Hiddink, Ancelotti, Villas-Boards, Di Matteo and Benitez), with another most likely on the way in the summer.

It seems a common thing in football to look at the manager’s position when a club enters choppy waters. They are the public face of their football clubs in many ways but there are a lot of different factors that need to be considered in the complicated formula of success, and managers are too often the ones to fall on swords in times of trouble.

Consider the situation at Wolves as another example. Dean Saunders survived just 20 games in charge of the club’s senior squad, having joined Doncaster Rovers in January. The League One side is now seeking its fifth permanent manager in less than 15 months, having sacked Mick McCarthy last February. When is that particular merry-go-round going to end and I haven’t even mentioned Blackburn Rovers…

In the midst of all the ‘shock’ about Fergie, there was one opinion I really did agree with – that of Spanish football writer Guillem Balague (below).

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All too frequently managers get too much credit when they simply couldn’t function without a coaching team, club staff and supporters around them. Equally, they are singled out for criticism when there are always other factors to consider.

A football club (or national team) needs to have its priorities and objectives in order – and recruit on that basis. Giovanni Trapattoni was hired to get results and see the Rep. of Ireland senior team qualify for international tournaments, and that’s what he has done.

If club owners and football associations were clearer about their actual expectations and targets, perhaps there would be greater understanding of how well (or not) managers were actually doing?

Does football have a social conscious?

Any time a football club finds itself in trouble, I consider the plight of its supporters.

It’s said often that managers, (most) owners and players come and go, while supporters are left behind, often to cope with the mess. It’s why I pride myself on the fact that I am a member of FORAS (Friends of the Rebel Army Society) and I own part of my local football (Cork City FC). I have known the concern of hearing about unpaid bills and tax demands and I’ve been a fan on the sideline, watching in horror as the worst possible outcome unfolds.

That any football supporter would take pleasure in Glasgow Rangers’ plight disgusts me. Whatever the owner is at, there is a football club at stake and should the blue half of one of Scotland’s most important cities meet its end, it will be a dark day for its entire football league. A club is only as strong as the league it competes in, a lesson Cork City and every other League of Ireland club has been learning in recent years.

It’s a lesson that also needs promotion in the Premier League, which has been shown up by the Suarez-Evra affair. Whatever people’s opinions on the matter, no player should be subjected to abuse on the basis of his skin colour and last weekend’s encounter between the two clubs served to reignite the row.

Managers obviously need to look after their own clubs’ interests first and foremost but as the ever-wise Johnny Giles (as part of RTÉ’s Premier League highlights coverage) pointed out, both Alex Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish should have nipped this issue in the bud early on and ensured that it never escalated the way it was allowed to. In doing so, they would have been looking after the interests of the league and the game that has given them of both (and their players and friends) a fine living.

There is one debate at the heart of what I’m trying to get at: is football a business or a sport? The answer is that it has to be both. Clubs have to look to their finances at all times and put long-term sustainability first but they also have to be mindful of the community roots they originally come from, the paying crowds that help fund their activities and the beautiful game that has given them a purpose in life.

Too often in the race to be a successful team on the pitch, clubs are forgetting the principles on which they were founded at the very beginning. Usually these ideals are as simple as providing facilities to players, encouraging people to play and get involved in the sport and representing the local area with honour and dignity. Maybe it’s time we start to remember some of the good stuff?