Paul Lambert, ITV and the Magic of the FA Cup
What football reporting needs most is a narrative; most of the time at least. For there to be a story, there has to be an issue, which can be resolved either on the field or off it.
Take Paul Lambert, for example. He said, quite honestly, that for some premier league managers the FA Cup could be a distraction.
Now, if you consider that some premier league clubs have 24 or so top quality players, some have 14 or 15, and some at the lower end have 12-14 (and arguably fewer), you can see Lambert’s point. Surely we all know that, if you are in the lower echelons of the league, then playing fewer games and consequently risking fewer injuries with players who are fresher, makes absolute sense…and whilst any club would relish actually winning the Cup as Wigan did, why is the media surprised that staying in the Premier League is so prized?
Every year the same media outlets glorify in the Premiership, citing certain games as being ‘great adverts for our league’, as if it didn’t get enough smoke blown up its commercial backside already. They enjoy telling us, too, that the Championship play-off final is ‘the most valuable game in football’, thereby reducing the glory of winning a big football match to a commercial transaction, before assessing how many players will need to be bought for the team to survive in the higher league.
You’d have to naïve in the extreme to be surprised that Premier League clubs prioritise survival above anything else, even if it does feel slightly depressing to admit it. Bolton recently announced losses of £163.8m, having been relegated only in 2012.
So why the faux outrage when a Premiership manager is honest enough to admit that playing extra cup games could, conceivably, not be the best thing for his team?
The economics of English club football, loaded as it is towards the top of the pyramid, means the FA Cup is only ever going to be a pleasant distraction for some clubs, but a possible problem if you are already fighting relegation, and have a squad struggling after playing 4 games in 10 days over Christmas.
There is the on-going debate, too, that we should have a winter break because players need to recharge, often playing whilst carrying a range of injuries. Many clubs who get knocked out of the cup use those spaces to regroup abroad.
Yet in the same weekend as Lambert was lambasted for suggesting that league survival was more important, the Macclesfield manager John Askey candidly admitted in a post-match interview that his side settled for a draw against Sheffield Wednesday because he wanted the revenue from a replay at Hillsborough.
Having sneered at Lambert in the only way he knows how (i.e. by exaggerating his ability to move his eyebrows in opposing directions, and saying everything in a slightly arch manner) Matt Smith on ITV applauded Askey, even suggesting that this act of realpolitik was ‘part of the magic of the cup’.
ITV are so obsessed by inserting that phrase into their coverage that you suspect that Smith might soon present the highlights package dressed with the same bubble perm favoured by Alan Sunderland 1979, with a bloke hired to ape Bob Stokoe by running around the studio a trilby and a brown raincoat.
But why let double standards get in the way of a pre-set agenda? Despite Lambert’s comment being the response to a particular question, one which the journalist concerned actually regretted asking, it was used without any context. And when Villa lost, it became the stick to further beat Lambert. Even Pat Murphy, usually a voice of calm reflection, suggested that Lambert had brought the criticism on himself.
Managers these days are actually becoming more like politicians. They suffer the same short-term scrutiny from the media, who quickly castigate trigger happy chairmen but are happy to write stories about crisis after a couple of defeats.
Perhaps it was ever thus, but David Moyes’ life in the goldfish bowl of Old Trafford is another example. Before Christmas, United won six games on the trot. Suddenly there was talk of them making a late charge for the title despite, as anyone who had seen any of those games knowing, the team was a very long way away from matching the leading clubs. Moyes knows it too. But defeat against Spurs, and as I write this Swansea too, has led to more talk of players not being good enough, and a marquee January signing being essential.
Like the politician whose ideological principles and long-term plans are ignored because he’s caught speeding, football managers are only a couple of defeats away from pressure to resign. At these times the football media resembles a child who will only stop crying with the offer of a lollipop, or the village gossip who assumes because you’ve kept your curtains drawn that you are either having an affair with the next door neighbour or starting a crack business.
Of course, there has always been pressure on managers to win games, but the cycle of churn is getting quicker, fostered by 24 hours sports channels and the need to update online coverage on an hourly basis. But this level of media scrutiny only leads managers to produce the blandest of soundbites in response, so that if someone does say something honest, it is set upon as something extraordinary.
We perhaps get the media we deserve, even from the technical incompetence of ITV. But just once in a while it would be nice if they treated us like intelligent people.
There are a number of reasons why the FA Cup feels so different today. One is that the FA moved the semi finals to Wembley, and now television companies have moved the time of the final too, pointedly ignoring the wishes of supporters. Another is that the mythical magic of the cup has been rendered clichéd by ITV and others pinning it onto every game they cover, and the range of sponsors who use it to jump on the football bandwagon.
But the main reason is because getting relegated from the Premier League, and other leagues too, can push your club to the brink of bankruptcy. Accusing Paul Lambert of ruining the FA Cup is simply disingenuous and lazy.