David Farrell looks at just what it is that makes cup tournaments so special
In the modern game, it seems like the little teams are always written off and dismissed in football. A trip to Reading or Wigan fails to strike fear in to the top teams in the Premier League as it all becomes routine: an easy win and 3 points in the bag.
When the ‘lesser’ teams do pull off an upset like Southampton’s domination of Manchester City, it’s a pity that they get little more than 3 points for it. This monopoly on glory and acclaim can become not only depressing, but stale. While the leagues perpetuate this structure, the cups present an opportunity for progress at the expense of the big boys.
To see an example of this, look no further than this year’s League cup finalists: Swansea City and Bradford City. They are two underappreciated sides without any of the glamour often associated with the top teams, but they are poised to play for the opportunity to enter the Europa League next season.
Bradford currently lie in the middle of League Two with a team that costs less than Arsenal benchwarmer Andrey Arshavin makes in a day, while Swansea have completed a fairy tale rise through the leagues and have firmly cemented their place in the promised land of the Premier League.
The fact that these sides have reached the final stage is a testament to the magic and romance of the cup. All either side needed was one exceptional performance to progress and to keep the dream alive. Bradford shocked viewers with their humiliations of Arsenal and then Aston Villa, defying the odds and showing that real skill does exist outside the top league.
Meanwhile, in the other semi-final, Swansea put European champions Chelsea to the sword, as they were clearly the better team over the two legs. Ten years ago, Swansea were on the cusp of being relegated out of the Football League, and now they are playing for one of the biggest trophies in the country.
These stories are surely what make sport as magical as it is; the notion that on any given Sunday the little guy can fight and defy the odds. Fans who are accustomed to mid-table mediocrity or seeing their teams fight against relegation can hope for the glory of a successful cup run.
In recent years we’ve seen teams like Cardiff, Millwall and Portsmouth make it to the final of the FA Cup, with Portsmouth even going on to win it before collapsing ever so spectacularly. The disconnect between league standings and progress in the cup isn’t absolute. Of course the bigger teams will usually win it, but surely the promise alone of a lesser team progressing is worth it all.
The hope offered to smaller teams from outside the Football League is great, but so too is the opportunity for the clubs to earn some money to help fund their efforts, whether it be staying afloat or by investing in their squad, their training ground or their youth structures, the spoils of a full house against a top Premier League side and a television deal helps communities and clubs grow.
Adding to the growth of football and seeing more and more people playing the beautiful game is only good. The gulf between David and Goliath in these battles is ten times greater in the cups than the Premier League. The stakes are so much higher, as all you need is one performance to change a season. One loss and you’re gone.
The dark cloud on the horizon though is that the importance with which those top sides hold the cup is lessening. Where once the FA Cup final was a fitting climax to the season, it now takes place alongside Premier League games. By allowing this to happen, the esteem of the competition is lessened in the eyes of fans and the players.
Now it must play second fiddle to the hopes of one last push, be it for the title, European football or even just Premier League safety. While the League Cup has been seen as a much poorer and disappointing cousin to the FA Cup, it still holds some prestige.
If you want to know just how important the League Cup really is, just ask any Arsenal fan, as it sometimes feels like it exists purely to tease them in their quest to end their trophy hoodoo. Smaller clubs also place a high value on the League Cup, and often a successful cup campaign can kick start a season.
What cannot be denied, though, is that there is something special about cup nights. The tension of the dying minutes in a winner takes all clash trumps the routine scramble and failure to find a winner in a league match.
The quest for points doesn’t seem as sexy as a straight-up knockout tie. Fans love to see the top four stumble to the Bradfords of this world and the underdog always gets the neutral support. The stories of Swansea and Bradford make for an incredible narrative to a final and football should cherish days like these.
One can only hope that the FA Cup throws up as many upsets this year. With financial fair play dominating headlines, the pure unabashed football of the cup is a wonderful distraction.