Does domestic football still matter?

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Craig Smith
Sports Reporter

Following a series of debates in football regarding the importance of cup fixtures and replays, Sports Reporter Craig Smith investigates whether cup competitions still hold relevance in the modern game.

Last month, Liverpool lined up in their FA Cup Fourth Round Replay against Shrewsbury with a side unrecognisable to most. Their striker was not Roberto Firmino, the Brazilian component of Liverpool’s feted attacking triumvirate. Instead, it was Liam Millar, a 20-year-old Canadian, who had been deemed surplus to requirements while on loan at struggling Kilmarnock, who started for the World Club Champions at a sold out Anfield. Millar’s former loan club, Kilmarnock, had their own Fourth Round cup game at home against lower league opposition, Queen’s Park. While Liverpool filled their line up with youngsters, Kilmarnock named a team with six players who had senior international appearances. This is indicative of the regard which domestic cup competitions are held within the respective countries.

Perversely, the pernicious influence of money in football explains both the disinterest in the English competitions and the enthusiasm in Scotland. In England, forgetting the far less lucrative league cup, the FA Cup is small fry financially – the winner is only guaranteed £3.6m. Contrast this to Huddersfield Town receiving around £100m in payments from the Premier League in the 2018/19 season, despite finishing bottom of the division. Financial prudence is why clubs prioritise league survival over cup successes.

Finances also lead to Championship clubs pursuing Premier League money instead of a special day out at Wembley. Just look at Brentford’s lineup versus Leicester in the FA cup – the pre-match narrative centred around their exhilarating front three of Said Benrahma, Bryan Mbeumo, and Ollie Watkins, yet none started. Highly proficient sides assured of Premier League survival also have more important matters to attend to, qualifying for the Champions League affords a club €15.25m, never mind the riches on offer if further progress is made. There are a multitude of reasons that clubs turn their attention away from domestic cups, and all of them relate to money. The treatment of the FA Cup, along with the English League Cup, stands in stark contrast to the situation in Scotland.

Scottish cup competitions are prioritised because the Old Firm, more recently Celtic, have monopolised league title victories. This brings exclusive access to Champions League qualification and all the associated riches. The Europa League, which has housed Celtic and Rangers this season, awards substantial prize money, as is demonstrated by Rangers getting around £5m for progressing from the group stage this season. This is a significant amount considering the wage budget for Aberdeen’s entire staff is around £8m. The larger Scottish teams, like Aberdeen, Hearts, Hibs, and Dundee United, would need a miracle to lift the Scottish top flight crown again given their financial disparity with the Old Firm.

Cup competitions offer potential joy that cannot be found elsewhere. Merely staying in the Scotish Premiership is not perceived as the same achievement as being in the English Premier League. Lengthy European adventures are non-existent for the non-Old Firm teams. Aberdeen were the last team outside of “the big two” to make the group stages of European competition back in 2007. These fans long for success and that is what cup competitions offer them. They are the Holy Grail for many Scottish fans. The evidence for this is palpable. 80,000 people took to the streets of Aberdeen following their 2014 League Cup final victory. Hibs fans invaded the pitch upon triumph in the 2016 Scottish Cup final. Ex-Hearts player Ryan McGowan speaks of the Sunday night out after their 2013 Scottish Cup win as being “the best night of his life”. These victories bring about emotions for fans and players which their English counterparts might never experience.

The underlying reasons why domestic cup football still matters in Scotland might be disconcerting but the result is desirable – sides like Bournemouth, who show little cup ambition and have little chance of qualifying for Europe, have not experienced the extraordinary cup moments which can unite generations of fans. Supporters crave these moments. When Wigan fan and TV presenter Danny Jamieson was interviewed five years after Wigan’s 2013 FA Cup triumph, he said he would not exchange the Cup Final winning day for anything, in spite of the fact Wigan now ply their trade in League 1, after years in the Premier League. Perhaps the dearth of cup success has led to fans re-evaluating their aims to convince themselves of their teams’ successes and their happiness as fans. I cannot imagine for a minute that Burnley fans, who are enjoying their fourth consecutive season of Premier League football, will have experienced the same glorious emotions that Wigan fans felt on that day in 2013. Fans have become so wrapped up in the desire to be in the competitions with the greatest riches that they have forgotten that cup success has the potential to bring them true happiness.