CARING ABOUT THE CUP

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I spent today sorting beads. Before I lived in New Orleans, this was a phrase that I never thought a middle-aged man should write.

We have just had Mardi Gras season – Carnival to be precise, Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) is only one day – and that meant parades rolling down the street two blocks from my house. Lots and lots of parades.

So what with my five-year-old daughter, and the visitors who stopped by, and the guests who stayed with us, we have been deluged by masses of beads, mounds of plastic trinkets piled up in our living room. This afternoon I finally untangled them all and placed them in bags with the good, the bad and the ugly. Normally they would get thrown into the attic to sit beside with the other bags accumulated after nine years here, but as I’m riding in the St Patrick’s Day parade next month it was worth the effort so I can recycle them to throw from our float.

Anyway, I mention this because, as I usually do when I’m carrying out manual labour around the house, I put on a football talk radio station and listened to it while up to my elbows in plastic shiny baubles. Much of what I heard today centred around the FA Cup, and although I only caught part of the Brentford game. I’m delighted we played (practically) our first team and progressed.

So it is amazing to me that teams do not seem to want to win the FA Cup. Truly, truly amazing. But I should qualify that a little.

I understand that if you have a big game coming up in a few days you may want to rest players if they’ve had a particularly packed schedule. Yes, I get it that you may not want to risk your best player – say Zola in the late nineties. Home to Burton Albion two days before you play Barcelona in the European Cup semifinal? Sure, use the squad.

But how many clubs have been in this privileged position over, say, the last five years? Us and Manchester United. That’s it. Some of the decisions by Premier League managers over the last decade have staggered me.

Bolton Wanderers reached the last 16 of the UEFA Cup five years ago after finishing seventh the previous year and sent a reserve team to the away leg. Crazy, absolutely crazy. When will they have that chance again? You support your team and follow them through thick and thin for years because one year you might have a decent side, qualify for a European competition, and then get a glamour trip to one of the giants of world football. And if you do then you want to compete.

Every year probably only four teams can win the league, leaving 88 clubs battling it out for two trophies. And you aren’t even going to try in those two? It’s more important to finish ninth rather than twelfth in the Premier League?

Much of today’s conversation focused on our North London neighbours in red, and their attitude towards the domestic knockout competitions is even more baffling. No trophy in eight years. Almost a decade without a single piece of silverware and that’s one of the very top clubs in the land. Because it’s more important to finish fourth and qualify for the Champions League. Really? Why? Because of the money? What do they spend the money on, better players? Do those players not come because they want to win things? Or is it more important – as has been the case for years now – that they play in the Champions League group stage against the Greek league winners and then get one more knockout tie? Wonderful.

Last season Gary Neville suggested that Chelsea had little chance of defeating Barcelona and should instead concentrate on finishing fourth to qualify for the same competition the next year. Even with the benefit of hindsight this is just so stupid – what is the point of entering the thing if you aren’t going to try and win it! It defies logic. At the start of the season did anyone amongst the 70 million people in Britain think this year’s League Cup final would be between Bradford and Swansea?

Now don’t get me wrong – a European Cup semifinal v Bayern Munich or Real Madrid is obviously more important than a fifth round League Cup game against Stockport. Money, money, money… I get it.

But let’s try our hardest and put out our best team in an effort to win the trophy, whether it’s the League Cup, the European Cup, or the World Club Cup.

Now if you will excuse me, I’ve got beads to sort. And strings of red ones to throw in the bin.

Stephen Rea is the author of the book Finn McCool’s Football Club, a tale of supporting Chelsea from the United States, the formation of a pub football team in New Orleans and the devastating effect of Hurricane Katrina on that city. Visit his site here: www.stephen-rea.com or friend him at www.facebook.com/stevorea

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