Time for Premier League managers to take cup competitions seriously

Posted by James Whittaker

Stoke recorded another cup victory beating Tranmere 2-0 to take them through to the fourth round of the Capital One (League) Cup as they continue to take the cup competitions seriously; something that can’t be said for some of their peers.

Whilst I can all too well appreciate some lower league sides seeing the competition as an unwelcome distraction, I believe there is no excuse for any top flight manager to shun the opportunity to compete given the predictability of the bread and butter of the league.

Fans can talk for hours about the effect money has had on the game and this is something sadly personified in the top flight where almost anyone can predict with a good degree of accuracy who will fill the top four spots come the end of May. In fact, it is fair to say that there are four "mini-leagues" in the Premier League.

The top is for those gunning for the title (although ironically the Gunners of Arsenal are not often within this group). The second is for those teams vying for the three other Champions League places. The third one is the race for the Europa League with a fifth place finish guaranteeing entry; though teams finishing in sixth and seventh may also be granted the same depending on who wins the cup competitions that season. And simply put the fourth group are all trying to avoid relegation. That might sound harsh but it’s the very real truth of a league that has unfortunately become all too predictable since its inception back in 1991.

It’s because of that predictability that cup competitions become so attractive to teams with no chance of getting into those top two "leagues". It’s a chance to forget the inevitable and to dare to dream of glory and maybe even European competition through the "back door" route as winners (or even runners up) of one of them. This is exactly what happened for Stoke. Since their promotion to the top flight, the club has given cup matches the respect they deserve by fielding strong sides with a view to progressing as far as they can.

In fact since promotion back in 2008, Stoke have been in four quarterfinal ties and enjoyed two trips to Wembley with appearances in the semi and finals of the FA Cup. It was through that competition that I was able to see my team play in Europe and my night in Valencia at the Mestalla will go down as one of my most treasured memories, probably alongside the games that got us there. Those are the games and occasions I used to imagine in the playground, dreaming of scoring a winner at Wembley or against a big European team, I don’t remember anyone dreaming of scoring at the Sports Direct Arena on the last day of the season to see their team finish 15th.

Staying in the league is important, of course it is, but the better managers will ensure that a balance is achieved in order to minimise the impact on their league commitments. That way, the team can be effective both in league and cup competitions. In fact, taking a break from the league can be a welcome distraction to a team on a poor run or one struggling for goals, a chance for them to get a bit of confidence into their play with no points at stake. It's also useful for assessing fringe and youth players, to keep them motivated by allowing them the opportunity to push for a starting place in the league. Those opportunities aren't available in meaningless reserve/Academy games and if those players are successful in cup matches, it also serves to keep the first team players on their toes.

In fact, it was in the League Cup that Kenwyne Jones was able to stake his claim for a starting spot in the league and that’s exactly what happened as he scored a hat-trick which has seen him remain as Stoke’s leading striker ever since. It certainly won’t have done Stephen Ireland any harm last night either, who scored his first competitive goal in almost two years. Nor Marko Arnautovic, who was able to get another start to build on his limited experience to date with his new colleagues and manager's system in a competitive match.

Lest we forget that the benefits are not just limited to those lucky enough to be a top division side. For teams lower down the divisions ladder, being able to fill their ground with fans eager to see Premier League regulars could determine whether or not wages are paid that month.

In these times of such financial disparity, that’s the responsibility top flight teams have to their fellow league members and when each of them pick up a minimum of over 60 million pounds every season, I don’t think it’s too much to ask.

Vis Unita Fortior


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