Too many cups?

RECENTLY in Cardiff, a Worthington Football League Cup final of memorable drama and sporadic quality was won against the odds 2-0 by Liverpool against Manchester United watched by 74,000 passionate fans.


RECENTLY in Cardiff, a Worthington Football League Cup final of memorable drama and sporadic quality was won against the odds 2-0 by Liverpool against Manchester United watched by 74,000 passionate fans. Yet, this was the last final to be sponsored by Worthingtons, and left the Football League hunting around for a new backer. That final was also strangely, definitely and ironically out of kilter with the competition as a whole: partly evidenced by the fact that Worthington, after several years, want nothing more to do with it.

Liverpool team members celebrate their 2-0 victory over Manchester United in the Worthington Cup Final in Cardiff. For some years now the tournament has been an ailing phenomenon, says the author. — Pic. AP-

You might, were you sufficiently cynical, have seen that glittering final as a sort of deathbed recovery. For some years now the League Cup — which at various times has been the Milk Cup, the Coca-Cola Cup and the goodness knows what else Cup — has been an ailing phenomenon. Arsenal snubbed it again this year, putting out a reserve side, which was promptly knocked out. Manchester United themselves fielded weakened teams in its earlier stages. Not so long ago when Arsenal and United were due to play a League Cup fixture at Highbury on the Monday, immediately after important Premiership fixtures on the Sunday, each sent a skeleton team on to the field, United's packed with youth players.

Let me declare an interest. I have always felt the Football League Cup, under whatever name you care to choose, has been nothing but a superfluity, an unwanted burden on the game. It was conceived under the reign as Football League Secretary of Alan Hardaker, a dour and powerful figure in the game whose feud with the Football Association was a feature of this regime.

To assess just how insular, bigoted and embattled Hardaker was, you have only to go back to the origins in 1955 of the European Cup, which was quickly to become one of the most glittering and attractive tournaments in the history of the game. Hardaker bitterly and crassly opposed it. When it was due to begin, he brought pressure on the malleable Joe Mears, then President of the League and Chairman of Chelsea, to keep Chelsea out of the competition. Mears complied. Since that was the only time Chelsea have ever won the Championship, they'd have to wait some 40 years before the Euro Cup was expanded and they could slip in as one of the several English teams admitted.

But Hardaker would excel himself in 1958. Manchester United, under the ambitious and progressive managership of the late Matt Busby, had defied him and the Football League by entering the European Cup in 1956 despite their opposition. But in February 1958, at Munich Airport, on the way back from a European Cup fixture in Belgrade, United's Elizabethan plane crashed in the snow with fearful loss of life and cruel injuries. Eventually a patched up United team lost in the semifinals to Milan.

The following summer, as a generous gesture, UEFA invited Manchester United to take part in the European Cup as a special case. Obviously United accepted the opportunity whereupon Hardaker, of whom and the League it was no business at all what UEFA decreed, objected. He demanded that United withdraw but the Football Association rejected his demand. Hardaker then appealed to a joint FA-Football League committee, which quite disgracefully supported his ban; so United did not compete.

It won't surprise you then to know that the League Cup was Hardaker's attempt to undermine the FA Cup, the oldest and most germinal of all competitions. For six years or so, however, his new tournament was mired in the shallows, a mere midweek affair whose eventual Final was a two-legged encounter played on the respective grounds of the finalists.

Clearly things weren't working but Hardaker was nothing if not resilient. In the past I've always compared what he did with the actions of a rich father with an ugly daughter on whom he bestows a large dowry. It took the shape of a Final at Wembley, then still the great iconic temple of the game, and an automatic place for the winners in the Inter Cities, later the UEFA Cup. This has always seemed to me quite an illicit bribe.

Historically, entry into that competition, after its early fatuous stages when it was nominally confined to countries with cities which stage an industrial fair, had depended on League positions. This in effect meant that a club, which elsewhere in another country's league attained a position, which meant it would qualify for the Euro competition was edged out by a League Cup winner, which could well have finished below them.

The intensive increasing pressures of the European Cup and to some extent the UEFA Cup itself made the Football League Cup, under whatever name it bore, increasingly redundant. Though it can rationally be argued that the European Cup itself has become a money dominated monstrosity, with its anti-Cup introduction of a so-called Champions League: which, thank goodness, will from next season have its second stage abolished by UEFA. Of course it's no longer a Champions' Cup at all, since so many clubs are now allowed to enter and indeed we have seen the fiasco of two teams contesting the Euro Cup Final neither of which has won their country's Championship the previous season.

Then there is the crazy dilution of the UEFA Cup itself, which is now entered by teams knocked out in the midway stages of the European Champions Cup! Here, too, we have seen finals contested by two clubs each of which was allowed into the UEFA Cup after elimination from the European Cup. Not to mention the summer time horrors of the so-called Inter-Toto Cup, which began obscurely in Switzerland as a means of keeping their soccer pools going during the summer, but now, absurdly, allow a UEFA Cup place to the ultimate survivors: a huge physical burden on already overworked players. Good to know that no English club intends to take part in it this summer.

Which will alas, feature in France the Confederations Cup, an invention of the ineffable Joao Havelange when he wanted to placate his Middle Eastern backers. It does, thank goodness, look doomed under pressure of leading Euro clubs, as does that still sillier tournament, the so-called Club World Cup, which began so awkwardly in Brazil, with Manchester United bullied into going by the British Government and FA and thus forced to skip the FA Cup which it then held.

In a word, there are far too many of these Cups. And I'm even sorry the British countries didn't stick to their original decision to snub the European Championship, once known as the Nations Cup. Like the World Cup, it, too, has expanded beyond all sense and logic.