Paul Lambert, ITV and the Magic of the FA Cup

FA Cup
Image available under Creative Commons (c) piperfighter

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.

Russell George watches random league and non-league football matches, has a half decent left foot, and pretensions as a writer and a critic. If you let him, he'll also tell you that he is a regular at Old Trafford, and that he was at the 1999 Champions League final. Don't let him.

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4 Comments on "Paul Lambert, ITV and the Magic of the FA Cup"

  1. Dom says:

    I suppose the reverse point about Premier League sides sacrificing an FA Cup run for survival in the league is how ‘make-and-break’ a cup run can be for lower league sides. Macclesfield’s example was alluded to here, they have one of the lowest budgets apparently in the Conference and a run to the 4th Round would allow them to pay players’ wages until the end of February. For many sides in the lower leagues of English football, the gate receipts, prize and television money can be the difference between financial survival and ruin. The sense for these type of clubs is not that the Cup provides glory but is only valuable in its financial reward.

    Which really is the same concern as Premier League and Championship sides prioritising the league over the cup. What ever level we’re at now clubs seem more concerned about generating money over winning games of football.

  2. Damon says:

    The writer describes the reaction to a manager deliberately not winning a game as “Faux Outrage”. Deliberately not winning a match is, some might argue, a very small step away from maitch fixing, which might justify an outrage. Defending a manager’s right to field whatever side he likes in a distracting compeition may seem fair enough but maybe consider also that that managers’ failures in the PL are actually what have led him to this course of action. Circumstance is the only reason Lambert is using for his decision and it is a circumstance of his own making. Had his own performance put Villa higher up the league, this course of action would not be required (see Southampton et al for reference).

    Also, completely agree that ITV (and other TV companies) and the FA deserve a lot of stick for devaluing the FA Cup (and I have given them just that in writing many times). However, ultimately they are only responsible for tinkerings and idiocy, the real blame lies with the creation of the Premier League (cheers Mr Sugar) and the Skyperbole, money and attitude that came with it – something that this article seems to apologise for, indeed it’s almost Premier League propaganda. On a football league blog?!

    Finally, the ‘magic of the cup’ rarely surfaces after Round 2 anyway. I am biased though.

  3. Russell George says:

    Ah, you seem to have missed the point of my article, which is a shame (and somewhat surprising). The ‘faux outrage’ I refer to is the hypocrisy of television companies criticising a Premiership manager being pragmatic in order to protect the revenue that television itself provides. To suggest that my article is Premiership propaganda is almost perverse, as is the suggestion that Paul Lambert’s comments are analogous to match fixing.

    On a wider point, the nice thing about TTU is that, as well as having its focus beyond the Premiership, it’s a blog that looks at football holistically. The Premiership exists, and has been instrumental in changing the football landscape over the past 20 years. It’s right that articles should comment on this.

    (I won’t be responding to further comments on this article)

  4. Damon says:

    Hmmm, the first para of my response was merely commenting on one phrase in your piece – I just happen to believe it doesn’t matter who the voice is, I don’t think any outrage can be perceived as ‘faux’. Just opinion, mind. I also thought your article conflated ‘TV football coverage’ into a homogenised whole, ascribing a Sky TV oeuvre to ITV’s FA Cup coverage. OK, that is not unreasonable, on the whole, but when the subject of the piece was Lambert/FA Cup/ITV and specific events, it merely seemed to overly generalise.

    Also, I didn’t say Lambert’s comments were analogous to match fixing, merely that it was a step in that direction.

    Finally, I perceived, at the time, many of your points excused the actions of PL managers rather than being mere comment – indeed, I took the penultimate sentence of your response here to reinforce that. Reading back now, however, maybe your voice was neutral so apologies for that.

    Sorry you won’t be responding to further comments, I don’t expect a response but it would seem a shame if someone else made better points. But, I guess, ‘comments’ sections are just the relegation places of the internet so your stance is understandable.

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