THE ROMANCE OF THE CUP IS BACK…
Nothing has made the football headlines more in the last week then cup shocks. First off we had Bradford triumphing over Aston Villa over a two legged semi-final, then Norwich were humbled at home to Luton, QPR lost emphatically to MK Dons and to top it off Oldham produced a tremendous performance live on television to see off a Liverpool side, fifty six places above them on the football league ladder and boasting 10 internationals. What is it about cup competitions that cause lower league teams to raise performance that defies league position or indeed, what is it about cup competitions that cause elite clubs to drop their level of performance and leave many fans scratching their heads at an abject display?
What the Bradford/Villa game showed is that confidence, at any level of sport, is a fragile element and Bradford, quite spectacularly, profited on Villa’s fragility. Any weakness in sport is there to be exposed and capitalised on, whether it be weakness at set pieces as was the case with Aston Villa, or some other performance related defect either physical, tactical or mental. In cup competitions, there is no doubt that complacency is a key mental factor in determining outcome. Complacency is a mindset, and an individual one at that. Regardless of what anybody says to you, motivational or otherwise, a successful, focussed and positive mindset depends on the individual in question. Having too many complacent players in a team is a dangerous dilemma for any manager, even one can be enough to affect the group and influence the result, having more than one can be catastrophic.
Earlier this season, we played Alfreton Town away, the game was shown live on ESPN and the cameras were there for one reason only, to see a cup upset, to see a David triumph over a goliath. Our gaffer warned us time and time again about taking the game lightly and that it was their FA cup final. He warned us to start well because they’d come out of the traps fast and to expect an early onslaught, but despite the warnings, we could and probably should have been looking at an early exit from the competition. Alfreton, to their credit, could easily have been 3-0 up inside twenty minutes, but we survived the early onslaught we were warned about. They did go ahead in the game early on but we thankfully responded well with two goals in the first half to settle us down and take the wind out of their sails. We eventually went on to win 4-2 in a game where they hit the woodwork four times, so to say we were fortunate is an understatement. That, in a nutshell, is cup competition, games are decided by the finest of margins.
There’s no doubt about it that when we visited Alfreton, a few of us thought it would be a walk in the park and maybe there was an air of snobbery in our attitude about us being a league team visiting a non-league team which almost led to our premature exit, but we fortunately produced enough quality to see them off. The Liverpool tie reminded me so much about our own experience. Like ourselves, I’m sure Liverpool players, when turning up at Boundary Park had the same arrogance. I bet a few egos in the Liverpool dressing room were shocked at the standard of the Oldham away dressing room. It’s cold, cramped and the toilets stink at the best of times so I’m sure the players, so used to having the plush surroundings of premier league facilities, were in an “I’m a celebrity get me outta here” mode, particularly the pea-hearts of the group which exist in every group. Combine this mind set with a hungry opposition playing a high tempo closing down game, an early goal which inspired belief and got the crowd sensing blood, and before you know it you find your team’s frailties, both mental and physical, being exposed by an opposition you should, on paper, be steam rolling. This scenario is ultimately where a manager finds out about his player’s character. Who are the ones he can rely on to dig in and fight and who are those that wilt and look to pass the buck and rely on individual magic (ie. a Steven Gerrard) to pull something out of the bag and get them off the hook and back to lovely, cosy Anfield.
In a justification for the higher league teams that were knocked out, I feel making whole sale changes to your team can only distort the function of the group as appeared the case with QPR. While the need for resting players is essential in this day and age, bringing five, six or even more new faces into a starting eleven can be a recipe for underperformance and it’s a risk that managers must juggle. The fact is, players that come into a team after a period out aren’t match sharp. No matter how many caps, or experience a player might have or no matter how many reserve team games one plays, there’s no substitute for the pace and physicality of competitive first team football. In the case of Liverpool, however, they fielded a near full strength side with only a few changes that surely their manager felt could cope or be at the very least helped along by the rest of the team, so, why the defeat?
I guess the answer to that is the reason we all love football, there are simply no guarantees!
In the triumphs of the above mentioned teams, I believe their most potent weapon was their motivation to prove themselves as footballers and stand toe to toe with higher class opposition. As a player, there’s nothing quite like being an underdog and proving the doubters wrong. The Brentfords, the Lutons, the MK Dons and the Oldhams, as with all other lower league football clubs are made up of players that have been told by someone or other at some point in time that they’re simply not good enough to succeed at a club, at a particular level or maybe even in football in general. Perhaps, it is this desire to prove oneself against the best which is worth more than any tactic any manager can apply and maybe strong enough alone to allow a seemingly lesser opponent compete with any athlete regardless of the gulf in ability.
For the last few years sports writers and pundits have questioned the romance of the FA Cup and the priority of the League Cup, even the lower league Johnstone Paint Trophy in club fixture schedules. I for one, and as a player, hope that this year proves beyond doubt that cup competitions are alive and kicking in this country and have reawoken the belief that on any given day, any team can beat any team. After all, there’s nothing quite like a cup upset and a possible day out at Wembley.