D3D4 Football columnist Darren Young looks at whether making changes to cup competitions actual improves them at all…
Do Your Cups Runneth Over? Try This For Size
Before Bristol City got a fantastic result at the Etihad Stadium, and when everyone thought they’d get blown away by at least four or five goals, everyone was saying how the Carabao Cup semi-finals should be a one-off match. They went a bit quiet afterwards, now we have a mouth-watering second leg to look forward to. If they’d said it after the Arsenal v Chelsea match I could understand.
But, in other words, they want to remove games so it becomes an FA Cup played in midweek. Which was exactly why the competition was devised in the early 60s – to utilise floodlights. But it was its differences that made it special.
The League Cup final used to be two legs, before they took it to Wembley in 1967 but the competition has been pretty much the same since then, save for removing one leg of the early rounds, letting the teams in Europe join in the third round and eliminating replays a few years ago.
But they (pundits mainly) are also on about taking all replays out of the FA Cup. So basically, turning it into a League Cup that’s played on a Friday night, Saturday, Sunday and Monday.
I know progress is inevitable, but is it always necessary? I’m not advocating going back to the days when Arsenal and Liverpool took four games to find a winner (they did in the 1980 semi-finals; and no-one complained then about there being too many games) but what the hell is wrong with a replay?
In fact, why the obsession with tweaking with these competitions at all? Some people want to change the cups more than the Queen’s official bra fitter – well, official before they lost the seal of royal approval last week for writing a book about it. Which means – apart from Meghan Markle having to slum it in Debenhams – that after seeing this column, it will also probably be taken off the Windsor-Mountbatten’s reading list. But it was good while it lasted.
And so was another great cup competition; the European Cup. In fact, one of the reasons they’ve removed replays and want to remove even more is so the teams in the Champions League don’t have a congestion of fixtures. But that’s only because they play so many bloody games just to get down to the last sixteen. Another example where change hasn’t always improved things.
Co-incidentally, I read a lovely article yesterday about the European Cup – now known as the Champions League (more about that in a moment) and the teams that have the best wins per games played ratio in it.
Because who doesn’t like a statistic like that?
The top two were out on their own. Clue – they are both English and both from Midlands. They also share a current division; The EFL Championship.
As I’m from the West Midlands and live within walking distance of Forest’s ground, the article stirred up quite a bit of nostalgia but it also made me think (and look back on Google) to those long-gone days.
Aston Villa played just a couple of campaigns in the competition. They didn’t have a European Cup in the 1800s when Villa won their other titles so they, along with other regular winners, Preston and Sunderland, were denied any continental success. But that’s done their cups per games ratio no harm at all, winning Old Big Ears in 1982 before falling to a Rossi, Boniek and Plantini-inspired Juventus (in the quarters) the year after. Just 15 games; one cup.
Nottingham Forest went one better. They only qualified once as Champions but then won it (1979) retained it (1980) and then lost at the first hurdle the year after a shocker against some minnow. Twenty games, but that was plenty to set a record that simply can’t be matched (by comparison, Real win it every 34.6 games, Barca every 59 games and Bayern every 65. Arsenal currently have no wins in 201 games, in case you were wondering).
The feat achieved by Forest won’t be repeated either, I dare say. After all, they’d had only just got promotion to the top division a year earlier.
It’s the equivalent of, another Midlands side, Wolves going up this year as they almost certainly will, winning the Premier League next season, the Champions League the two seasons after that and getting eliminated by Linfield in the first round the one after.
Except they couldn’t do all that, even if the unlikeliest of unlikely scenarios did happen and the first four things happened. In those days, it was a straight knockout whereas now, with the group stage, a freak exit to Linfield or anyone else is impossible unless it’s in the preliminary rounds and the holders are exempt.
But then a lot of things were different in ‘them there’ days.
For example, only the league winners were entered into the competition. It was an elite only establishment – a calling card that had to be really earned, and not by winning the Europa League or UEFA Fair Play Award.
Let’s put aside the fact that when only Champions qualified it was called what it is now, a European Cup; yet now, when up to five buggers can get into it from the same country, it’s called a Champions League.
The mix of teams was different too. It wasn’t the same old, same old richest clubs playing each other time and again.
Younger fans of Arsenal won’t believe this, but you didn’t play Bayern Munich or Barcelona every season. Villa played Valur of Iceland, Dynamo Berlin from East Germany, Dynamo Kiev of The Soviet Union and Belgium’s Anderlect before getting a shot at Bayern in the final.
Two of those countries don’t even exist now, never mind the teams.
Forest played some even more obscure ones including AEK Athens, Grasshoppers Zurich, Oster (Sweden) and Arges Pitesti in their two-and-a-bit campaigns.
The article said that Forest’s one cup win every ten games was unlikely to bettered unless they started qualifying for the competition again. I think we all agree that UEFA will have to relax their qualifying criteria a hell of a lot more for that to ever be an issue.
It’s relaxed enough according to many people. A team can now be champions of Europe without ever winning their domestic league. In theory, a team could do that without ever being in the top division of their domestic league, by winning an FA or League Cup, then the Europa League and then the big one. So, dream on, Brentford.
So, has the cup got better or worse since Cloughie defied the odds in the years when there had to be something go massively wrong not to have an English winner? After Liverpool, in 1977, the only non-English winners were Hamburg (1983) and Juve (1985) until English clubs were banned from Europe following that ‘85 final in Brussels.
I think it’s a fair question. Some countries might have dominated in that era (interestingly, only Dutch, German and English clubs won in fifteen seasons from 1970-1984) but it was an open competition with clubs like Saint Etienne, St, Borussia Monchengladbach, Brugge, Malmo and Leeds amongst the finalists.
Compare to recent times, when we’ve only just narrowly avoided an all Madrid final for three of the last four years because they were conveniently drawn against each other in the last four last year.
Does that increase interest or does it make it wane? Outside of Madrid anyway.
An unexpected winner, or even finalist, in the Champions League these days is as far off as a League Cup replay or an FA Cup full strength team in the early rounds.
But will the tampering save the cups, or kill them off completely in the long term?
We have to look no further than the EFL Trophy for an example of format changes that have gone royally tits up.