Domestic cup football has always been a curious aspect of British football, derided and loved in equal measure for its distraction and romanticism respectively. The higher the position of the club, the higher the feeling of antipathy towards one of the traditional silver jugs tends to be, at least until the later rounds. Further down the leagues the importance of the cups is evident to the triumvirate of the fans, players and owners.
Whether its the fan’s praying to be drawn with a Premier League club as a dream respite from the dreary depths of their usual struggle, the players looking to make a name and gain some exposure to further their careers or the owners aiming to capitalise financially by riding the coattails of the superstar opposition, domestic cup football remains as important as ever to the heartbeat of the game despite popular claims to the contrary.
Aside from the obvious glory ties of drawing an Arsenal or Manchester United, the cups also have the regular occurrence of conjuring up draws between traditional or lapsed rivals, allowing them to renew hostilities that may have lain dormant for a number of years due to differing divisions. Examples of such ties would be the now infamous Battle of Upton Park last year between West Ham United and Millwall, easily the most interesting draw of the round or the equally enthralling Swansea-Cardiff League Cup game a couple of years back.
When the last 16 of this year’s League Cup was drawn last month this was the case for Swansea City, who although no longer the small lower league club they previously were still maintain the lower league mentality of hoping for a bigger club to flex their new found confidence against. The initial disappointment at missing out on a “big four” club was quickly replaced by unadulterated excitement at facing Wigan Athletic, possibly the only fans to be anticipating a trip to the home of the Latics. The reason of course boils down to one particular Spaniard who decided a life at a soulless Lancashire outpost was preferential to building a dynasty on the edge of the Gower Peninsula. Roberto Martinez is considered as a Judas by many fans in the SA postcodes for the way he immediately jumped ship for the unfashionable Wigan and as is always the case those whom were revered tend to suffer the most abuse.
There is a sizeable minority who can overlook Martinez’s defection and applaud the ex-captain who masterminded the League One Championship win and effectively helped transform the club into the comfortable 2nd tier assemble it currently is. However as previously stated, when a player/manager is as loved as Martinez leaves the second another club comes in it is often construed as betrayal and brings the worst, or best, out of the fans. With this in mind, anyone who devalues the domestic cup competition only needs to be one of an estimated 4,000 travelling fans on tuesday night at the JJB stadium to witness the atmosphere that wouldn’t otherwise be possible without such a tournament. The cup may not be the priority of the big four, but you can not underestimate how seriously it will be taken come midweek and that is the magic of the cup…bringing together two teams in what would otherwise be an unlikely scenario and offer up a raft of emotions.
Premier League survival may be Roberto Martinez’s main concern as opposed to the League Cup, but the Spaniard had better be prepared for a plethora of abuse and vitriol from the away fans, otherwise it is going to be a long night. And it is for unlikely duel’s such as this one which ensures that domestic cup competition remains as vital today as it ever has done.
A recurring theme that is often debated amongst football fans is the battle between the traditionalists and those of a more modern persuasion. These debates are often, but not always, linked to the generational gap between an average fan base that tends to encompass all spectrum of the age of man. You tend to see the young merchandise-loving kids who have been brought up in a sport dominated by capitalism and corporations and whom don’t relate or remember the “good old days” of sportsmanship and community that older heads profess to miss.
Your average teenage fan may not care about the nightclub excursions of a football superstar or be particularly bothered by the enigmatic foreign winger who wears gloves with short sleeves, but you can bet your season ticket his grandfather next to him will be questioning the masculinity of such behaviour and bemoaning the nouveau riche arrogancy of today’s stars. After all, Sir Stanley Matthews never fell out of taxis intoxicated with a glamour model in gaudy underwear. This continuous battle between old and new is indeed a common occurrence in grounds and homes across the country.
One major bone of contention, primarily with the elder generation but also increasingly with the younger working class fans, is how the clubs are seemingly losing their touch with the communities they are meant to represent. Just how in touch with the people of Salford are the global conglomerate that is Manchester United, a company that is increasingly marketed to target audiences across Asia and the Americas? Has the controversy over foreign ownership even further decreased the feeling of the local population’s rapport with their clubs as their feelings and wishes get ignored in preference for the dollar? Whilst it can be accepted that this is the price a club needs to pay in order to challenge at the top, it is nevertheless galling to the paying-supporter of a lower-league club who adopts this marketing method to increase their income.
At what price does a club do away with their unique persona simply to increase revenue? This cleansing of identity is best displayed in the recent phenomenon of doing away with historic and traditional club badges in favour of new market-friendly and easily-merchandisable abominations. Badges have been occasionally tweaked or changed on a rare scale throughout football history however the changes tend to be few and far between. The recent splurge in new badges is strictly financially-driven however, hidden behind statements about “ambition” and “moving forward”. Is this new found craving for success (financial rather than sporting?) yet another dagger through the heart of the traditional working-class support in favour of the new middle-class “prawn sandwich” brigade in the executive boxes?
Recent clubs who have shed their historical badges in favour of new designs are many. The majority of the traditional badges had symbols linked to the geographical area the clubs represent, parish monuments and local council crests added to the club name to give a sense of belonging and emotional attachment to the fans who also belong to the same area. Arsenal’s historic and famous club crest incorporate the origins of the club name with the Cannon emphasising the Gunners’ heritage whilst also displaying the council emblem of the area they represent. That was replaced with a simple, digitised design in 2002 as the club rode a wave of success under the club-transforming leadership of Arsene Wenger. Their North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur also went down the same route, casting aside their detailed and visually descriptive badge in favour of a stripped down and basic modern design that no doubt could be easily replicated on any kind of merchandise. Aston Villa are yet another major club to attempt this change whilst other clubs such as QPR and Cardiff have redesigned their emblems to embrace a new corporate identity, namely rich and Welsh respectively.
Whilst it may be expected that larger clubs who operate as multi-million pound corporations would be foolish not to cultivate and enhance their brand at the expense of heritage, the issue has become a bit more absurd recently, with lower league clubs who’s very existence is dependent on community loyalty also joining the act. The advent of the current 2010-11 season saw Cheltenham Town and Morecambe amongst others change their badges in favour of horrendous cartoon-like offerings. Personally I have never given the issue much thought however the issue has taken a step too far by a COUNTRY’s badge being changed. As an organisation famously tight-fisted and cheap, its astonishing that the Football Association of Wales has swiped away its history and adapted a computerised rendering of its famous badge. The badge that John Charles wore in Wales’ only World Cup appearance in 1958 has been consigned to the dustbin and that’s that. Money made modern football the great thing it is today yet it is also the single entity that will kill off our passion if it continues to evolve the game beyond the working-class heart that helped the game prosper in the 100 years before million and billionaires turned up. Here’s to tradition and heritage.
The signing of a Premier League reserve player whom has failed to make the breakthrough is not always a guarantee of success when the said player drops down a level to make his name. There is a long list of such players who despite their grounding at the nation’s top academies find the reality of senior football too much and fade away, the high expectations and the dream never realised.
Conversely, some make the grade by getting their heads down and altering the dream, performing diligently at a range of lower level clubs before earning their place amongst the game’s elite. Many of the so-called “lower league” stars who get signed by Premier Leagues clubs tend to really be previous academy cast-offs rather than true lower-league journeymen straight from the building sites, regardless of the inevitable press headlines. Non-league menace Jermaine Beckford for example had lone been touted to complete his unlikely non-league to Premiership journey before completing his multi-million pound move to Everton in the summer. What is overlooked is that the ex-Wealdstone player was reared in the Chelsea academy and had the same schooling as England International Carlton Cole and was therefore far from a raw recruit.
A classic example of one such player being turfed out of a big name club as a teenager only to eventually walk back through the same doors as a millionaire internationally-capped star is Peter Crouch. Released from Tottenham Hotspur in 2000, Crouch worked his way back with show-stealing performances in the Championship with QPR and Portsmouth which earned him moves to the Premier League with Aston Villa, Southampton, Liverpool and eventually an unlikely return to White Hart Lane. The unusual full-circle and perfect adage to the “never go back” theory unless with the added motive of “prove them wrong”.
At Swansea City in particular there has been a steady flow of Premier League rejects filtering in and out of the Liberty Stadium as they aim to capture a decent talent for free, much in sync with the rest of the football league. Fulham reject Darren Pratley has been an unequivocal success in the Swan’s engine room, his all-action displays ensuring the prospect of a Premier League club swooping for him in the summer when his contract runs out. Other successes through this method include Manchester United outcast and current club icon Alan Tate as well as West Ham’s “Academy of Football” graduate Leon Britton who was revered before his departue this summer. Both players have managed to rack up 300+ appearances each and played key roles in raising the club from the threat of non-league and extinction to comfortable Championship challengers. As already explored previously, this can be equally offset by the failures that have become mere footnotes in the clubs history, passing through without making little or any notice on their tumble from Premiership possibility to lower-league non-entity. Chelsea and Scotland hopeful Steven Watt came with high hopes and left without a whimper, 3 league appearances and injuries to show for his potential. Another prospect was Scott Evans, a local boy returning from the Manchester City academy who was much-vaunted but last seen playing in the League of Wales.
Perhaps the person who bests encapsulates the failure of scouring the market for Premiership cast-offs is Matty Collins. A strong Welsh prospect who was signed by Fulham for £100,000 at the mere age of 15, the player with a lot of promise graduated to become a regular reserve team player…at Swansea. Having joined his local team from Craven Cottage in 2006 having never lived up to his promise, Collins played a handful of games in his 4 year stint at the Liberty Stadium before joining Scott Evans as another top-level reject in the grateful Welsh Premier.
Into this background of optimism tinged with scepticism comes Scott Sinclair, the ex-Chelsea youth product with undoubted and endless ability and potential who has struggled to make the breakthrough in one of the most talented squads in world football. Tiring of being passed around a myriad of football league clubs Sinclair has signed for Swansea for the relatively small fee of £500,000 to gain some stability to nourish his talent. It is fair to say that despite the worry of another Collins-esque signing with the risk of a half-million pound fee being lost, within only a handful of games gone the player is looking every bit the star that he was always expected to become.
Moving to a provincial club with the burden of being heralded as a future England international and the possible piece to take the Swansea jigsaw to the next level is the kind of pressure that can break a young player and lead him to becoming just another “what if?” lamented upon by future generations. Sinclair has shown nothing that makes him seem susceptible to this curse however and apart from the occasional missed game through injury his brief tenure at the Liberty has so far been nothing short of perfect. Swansea’s water-tight defence was crying out for a goal-getter last season, and Sinclair’s Thierry Henry-esque finishing has seen him already exceed the top scorer of the last campaign with the season barely under way. His goal streak and the deadly defence-splitting runs have had the open-mouthed fans in raptures.
The optimistic amongst the fan base are already happy to declare Sinclair a step-above anyone to have performed in the Swans shirt in the last three decades at least whilst the pessimists lament that the fantastic start will soon come to the inevitable end as such form is impossible to maintain. With the Championship a notoriously long and tough campaign it is unreasonable to state that Sinclair’s signing is an unqualified success, a position the Swans found themselves in a few years ago. In 2006 Liverpool’s Paul Anderson joined on loan and “David Beckham’s long-term successor” had an equally breathtaking beginning to his Swans career before fading out.
Whilst taking such warnings aboard, Scott’s form is definitly something to become excited about however, and many are already day dreaming about how they can tell future fans how they “saw Scott play”. Having scored 4 goals in 2 League Cup wins over Tranmere and Peterborough and gunning for ex-loan employers Wigan in the next round, the 21-year-old has also made his mark in the league. His winner was crucial in the victory of recently relegated Burnley as well as his instant impact in the 3-2 triumph away at Watford. With league goals in wins against Coventry and Scunthorpe in between, Sinclair’s perfect 8 goals from 8 games is a great achievement in new surroundings.
Scott Sinclair has no guarantee of returning to the top flight and gracing the country’s largest grounds, as the aforementioned failures clearly imply. His explosive start however has given him the impetus to build on solid foundations and we could be in the midst of a future Premier League and International star. Not that the lad needs more pressure.