The Sky Sports juggernaut has taught us that the Relegation Battle™ is in fact a real life coliseum, in which second-rate footballers are lumped into a pit with one hammer between them, and whoever can emerge with their skull intact can remain in the Caligula banquet of the Premier League for one more season, before the whole ritual begins again. Or that is how the hyperbole can be interpreted anyway.
It is a battle so strenuous that the football clubs involved cannot possibly indulge themselves in the FA Cup or League Cup, in case they invoke the wrath of the Premier League and are banished to the God forsaken plains of the Championship. But don’t those competitions offer football fans the chance to see their club actually win something and create history, rather than just enjoy a handful of wins over a season while their team grow exhausted from treading water? Isn’t it better to strive than just survive?
Last season brought the refreshing sight of two clubs, not traditionally associated with the top teams in the country, taking on the cup competitions and in the process achieving goals that had never been completed by any of their former club professionals. Swansea City saw off Bradford City in the final of the League Cup to earn their first major trophy in 102 years, while Ben Watson’s last minute header against Manchester City in the FA Cup final earned Wigan their first major trophy also, and capped off an incredible journey through the divisions. They are memories that not a single fan from either of those clubs will forget, and offer consolation to those same fans as they deal with the aftermath of those successes. Swansea have had to sack Michael Laudrup this season after poor results left them too close to the relegation zone thanks to a campaign in Europe, while Wigan were relegated the same season that they took home the FA Cup. But wasn’t it worth it?
Under the cold glare of club executives, it probably wasn’t. The prize money for winning the League Cup and FA Cup pale into insignificance when you consider the mammoth costs of running a top-division football club, especially if lined up against the tens of millions of pounds that is made available for anyone able to cling onto existence in the Premier League. Furthermore, cup winners are given an invitation to the party all clubs seemingly battle to avoid: the Europa League. Preliminary rounds, group stages and two-legged later rounds in all the darkest corners of Europe can take its toll on squads that haven’t been financially bolstered for the experience. Michael Laudrup could quite convincingly blame the competition for his P45, much the same as Owen Coyle could.
But is negating the cups worth the backlash that is experienced from the fans? Would Sam Allardyce have been so quick to send out the squad he did against Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup if that long week had concluded with him losing his job? Would Arsene Wenger have to take the piss taking from Jose Mourinho about being a failure if the League Cup final against Birmingham, or the FA Cup game against Blackburn last season, had been more successful? You only have to look at the way Sunderland have propelled themselves into the League Cup final this year to see that the rewards in the media and from supporters can pay off in the Premier League, and boost Gus Poyet’s stock, something that many may not have predicted when he was brought in to replace Di Canio.
This year it appears that football clubs are taking heed of what the supporters want, and both competitions appear in good health. As touched on before, the League Cup final will contain Sunderland against Manchester City, and the FA Cup quarterfinal could potentially contain Hull, Brighton, Sheffield Wednesday or Charlton, while we will definitely get to see Sunderland (again) Sheffield United, and the champions, Wigan Athletic. None of those teams are seemingly going to wither under the pressure to get promoted or avoid relegation, and instead aren’t looking to get drawn along with the tide, but instead go for glory and reward the loyal fans that make them what they are.