Inconvenient cups

Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur employ squad rotation in the UEFA Cup

It’s been 36 years since two English clubs played each other in the UEFA Cup. Villa and Spurs would have met in the last 16 this year had they got past CSKA Moscow and Shakhtar Donetsk respectively. Instead, they fielded under-strength teams – Spurs in both legs, Villa in their away tie in Moscow – with the same outcome, a 3-1 aggregate defeat. Spurs were knocked out in front of 30,000 at White Hart Lane, Villa were watched by 300 of their fans who’d travelled 3,200 miles for the privilege of getting an update on the progress of the reserve team. Four days later, Man Utd too rested players for the resoundingly awful Carling Cup final in which they nonetheless beat Spurs’ first eleven on penalties. At the same time an almost entirely different Villa team to the one in Moscow conceded two goals in the last four minutes to draw with Stoke. It didn’t seem like much of a return for effectively opting out of what would have been their best run in Europe for over a decade.

Spurs’ Carling Cup run had included a victory over an under-strength Liverpool and a lucky semi-final defeat of Burnley, who had previously beaten Arsenal’s second string. From its launch in 1960, the League Cup was treated with disdain by many of the bigger clubs, who often declined to enter it – Liverpool being the last to opt out, in 1968-69, two years after the tournament’s profile was raised considerably by the introduction of a Wembley final. Since then it had been taken seriously until the last few years when, along with the FA Cup, and now the UEFA Cup, it seems to have have become a tiresome irrelevance in the eyes of certain managers. Hull fielded fringe players for their FA Cup fifth round replay with Sheffield Utd, which took them into the last eight for first time in 38 years, a fact that you would think represents quite a big deal for Hull fans. Duly rested, the first choice team then lost what could yet prove to be a vital match at home to Blackburn the following Sunday. Southampton’s trip to Mansfield for a Carling Cup third round tie in September 2005 would have cost their travelling fans only a fraction of that laid out by Villa supporters who went to Russia. But they would have felt the same sense of frustration and anger. Mansfield were bottom of the League and had not won a game but beat Southampton reserves 1-0. The Saints’ manager at the time, one Harry Redknapp, was unrepentant. His club’s priority was to get back into the Premier League so it did no harm to drop quickly out of a competition they wouldn’t expect to win; Field Mill just happened to be the venue for their capitulation rather than, say, Highbury or Stamford Bridge.

Differing attitudes to cup and league are demonstrated in reverse in South America where clubs taking part in the latter stages of the Copa Libertadores are apt to employ two separate teams with a shadow squad used for the domestic league while the first eleven are kept back for the lucrative Copa. But everywhere this is done, the motivating factor is the same – the pursuit of money and the fear prompted by the possibility of missing out on a windfall. It’s not unreasonable to expect clubs to rest odd players carrying injuries or close to a ban for yellow cards if they have another big match coming up. But what Villa and Spurs did is much more than that: entering reserves is an admission of disinterest. Bolton led the way last season by resting their first team for the away leg of a UEFA Cup knockout tie against Sporting Lisbon, but the most extreme gesture of this sort yet made by an English club also came from Spurs in 1995 when they recruited a group of mostly lower division players on short-term contracts to play in the Intertoto – they lost three of their four matches culminating in a 8-0 defeat in Cologne.

Managers’ attitudes to criticism of their disdain for cup ties seem to be that the complainants are simply unsophisticated, incapable of seeing the bigger picture. In fact, supporters rightly feel that they are being conned, as some managers retreat into the isolationist attitude that held English football back in the 1950s. The 1954-55 English champions Chelsea were discouraged from entering the inaugral European Cup by the Football League. It was only at Matt Busby’s insistence that Manchester United took part in it the following season, with European success going on to play a major role in their becoming the most famous club around the world. United’s victory in the Carling Cup was their current manager’s latest major trophy but his beaten counterpart won’t have been too disappointed – at least Spurs have now avoided a fixture pile-up for next season.

From WSC 266 April 2009