Have A Cup If You Want One
Thanks to marketing and sponsorship, silverware isn't what it used to be. The AXA-sponsored FA Cup. The Eon-sponsored FA Cup. The Coca-Cola Cup. The Carling Cup.
The only title that means something is the FA Premier League. Formerly known as the FA Carling Premier League. Now known as the Barclays Premier League.
It's sad to say, but nothing else is that important.
Cup competitions seem to be a mandatory eventuality in a season where most managers are more focused on their final league positions. Gary Megson, once manager at Bolton, fielded a weakened side in one of the domestic cups because he 'had the league to worry about.' Our once-revered Martin O'Neill fielded a team of kids in the Europa League because we were mounting a top 4 challenge (it failed). Small Heath won the League Cup but it was only a sidenote compared to their final league position and status. Kenny Dalglish was sacked at Liverpool despite winning the League Cup in his first full season back in charge with a host of new signings.
Is it fair to say that these time-honoured competitions, traditions and trophies no longer mean what they used to?
Back when we won it, it was the European Cup. 1982. It was something special, something memorable. One of only 4 English clubs to have won it until Chelsea's recent exploits. Now it is the Champions League, and you don't even have to win your domestic title to compete in it. It does wonders for attracting players, but not too much if you still can't be successful in the top division. Ask Liverpool.
Consider that we currently have 2 European competitions; the Europa League and the Champions League. What's the point? If you win the Champions League you're the best team in Europe, so what does that make the Europa League winners? It's not the second-best team in Europe because there is a runner-up in the Champions League. Liverpool have won this cup once since the start of the Premier League, and not once have they been domestic champions. Chelsea won it this year and achieved the honour of being the 6th-best team in the Premier League (previous holders Aston Villa). If you win the Premier League, you're the best team in the Premier League. If you win the FA Cup, does that mean you're the best team of all of the leagues? If you win the League Cup, you're automatically guaranteed a place in the Europa League. Is that something to be proud of? Something to strive for? It's safe to assume that Liverpool's owners were expecting Champions League qualification this season, but is competing in the Europa League really that different? United and City both showed last season that the gulf in class isn't as wide as UEFA would have us believe.
Players don't join teams based on their success in domestic cup competitions. You would never hear of a player joining Everton because they are keen to emulate the success of the 1995 FA Cup-winning side that beat Manchester United. No-one will sign up for Villa because they remember the Coca Cola Cup in 1996. The truth is that these once-prestigious cups now play second fiddle to the domestic campaign. To the lower league clubs it is a genuine opportunity to get one over on the big boys and get some deserved recognition, but to the elite it is just a tedious affair that provides an unwelcome distraction. Put it this way, if Sir Alex is willing to give his reserve squad a run-out in the FA Cup and the Carling Cup, it isn't that important. The media doesn't help the reputations of the competitions either. Special attention is drawn to Arsene Wenger if he says he will field a full-strength side against Doncaster in in the 3rd round of the FA Cup, but isn't that how it should be regardless? Shouldn't Arsenal WANT to win the FA Cup? Shouldn't every club?
This brings us to the expectations of our own Aston Villa. What do we want? What should we be aiming for? Should we take the same attitude as the rest and field weakened teams in the domestic cups, or should we try and win one seeing as we won't get into Europe any other way soon? Should we set the bar even higher and, heaven forbid, try to win the league? Why else do we compete in it if we're not trying to win it? This season Montpellier have been a shining example of what can be achieved. They finished the previous season in 14th in Ligue 1, spent €2m on players, 80/1 to win the title....and they did it. This is either an example of how far the French league has fallen behind La Liga or the Premier League, or that anything is possible with the right manager and the right motivation. Most will assume it's the former rather than the latter, but even if it's a one-off it's sure to have captured a few imaginations.
History dictates that we have no chance of winning the league so the cups are our only opportunity for success, along with a top 4-5-6 finish if possible, and the general consensus is that we should be playing European football. If this is the main goal for the club then it is certainly achievable, in many ways. In this day and age however, it seems that there is a decision to be made regarding our direction. Potential cup winners or title challengers? Was everyone happy qualifying for the Europa League 3 seasons running or should we be trying to win this thing and putting Midlands football back on the map?
I remember Alpay once proudly lofting the InterToto Cup in the palm of his hand back in 2000; proof that we were winners of a competition allowing us to get into another competition that we were subsequently knocked out of, most likely because we were concentrating on a league that we were never intending to win. We haven't seen anything resembling a trophy since. The real question is, if it means nothing in the long run, why do we want to?