Too many tournaments

Aston Villa’s manager Martin O’Neill has embroiled his club in a plethora of fixtures this season, but has found that his attempts to do so still failed to bring him the results.

You might say that Martin O’Neill, Aston Villa’s effective manager, has been well and truly hoist by his own petard; as they say. This, because of the way he has embroiled his club in a plethora of fixtures, tried in vain to extricate himself, then found that his attempts to do so still failed to bring him the results — well, you can say the specific result — that he wanted. And serve him right, I say.

Recently, Villa, enjoying by and large a buoyant season and most important of all, well on course for that invaluable fourth place in the Premiership which brings — though it surely shouldn’t — qualification for the ensuing Euro Champions League, found themselves faced with two UEFA Cup games against powerful CSKA Moscow.

They duly drew the home leg, then had to travel to Russia for the return. Knowing that just a couple of days later, they faced an important and League match at home to Stoke City. One which, in normal circumstances, they could be expected to win, against a struggling side; but O’Neill wanted to leave nothing to chance.

So he went to Moscow with what you might call a skeleton side, full of young reserves, leaving out a clutch of first choice players, including England’s Gareth Barry and that indestructible American goalkeeper, Brad Friedel. In such circumstances, it was hardly surprising that they should have gone down, and hence out, 2-0.

O’Neill had a significant amount of explaining to do about that. In the words of the French, qui s’excuse s’accuse. Who excuses himself accuses himself. Thus, Martin O’Neill, as fluent as any Irishman: “I’m disappointed we’ve gone out of the competition, but we’ve played a lot of games this year. 11 or 12 more than we did throughout the whole of last season. It’s not a decision that was taken lightly, and if I had thought of playing just young players then we would not have travelled here, stayed the three nights, and gone back. Circumstances forced me into making my decision, and whilst I am disappointed we were beaten, I will have to see what the rest of the season brings to see if that disappointment is worsened.”

What the following Saturday brought was a disappointment indeed. 2-0 ahead and seemingly cruising to victory at Villa Park against Stoke, Villa suddenly collapsed in the final minutes and an exuberant Stoke team scored twice to make it a 2-2 draw. Divine justice?

There may be a case for it, since what O’Neill in his post Moscow declaration quite failed to mention was that last summer, instead of enjoying their holidays, the Villa players found themselves embroiled in that monstrosity, the Intertoto Cup. In which the prize is a place in the UEFA Cup, a once valid and vibrant competition, which itself has now been reduced to a form of fiasco. And which Michel Platini, who as President of UEFA seems determined to shout out as many old ideas as the egregious Sepp Blatter, intends grandiosely to expand next season.

The lure of the absurd Intertoto Cup is that success carries a place in the ensuing UEFA tournament, which Villa duly attained. At the cost, you might well say, of their close season. But let us look at the humble and dubious origins of this Intertoto Cup, almost lost by now in the mists of time. What it began as was simply an attempt by the Swiss football pools to prolong their existence into the summer. In other words, little more than a mere betting scam. But such is the greed and desperation of today’s leading European football clubs that they have seized on UEFA’s dotty decision to make the Intertoto a gateway to the senior UEFA Cup itself.

Which, of course, has been fundamentally undermined by the absurd decision to allow clubs which have been eliminated from the major tournament, the European Championship or whatever, itself bloated beyond belief, to live again in the UEFA Cup. Which more than once has presented us with a UEFA Cup final by two drop out teams, which did not even figure in the tournament when it began.

Alas, a once attractive tournament such as the European Cupwinners’ Cup, which features many a dramatic final, has long since bitten the dust, victims of the decision, forced by the greed of Europe’s richer clubs, to expand the so-called Champions Cup itself beyond rationality. Once upon a time, you had to win your own Championship, the Cup itself or come second to the previous season’s actual winners — were they from the same nation — to compete. Now, certain major countries can enter as many as four clubs, which makes the European Champions League a complete misnomer, and potentially an offence in terms of trade. Goodbye, too, to the simple formula of home and away matches throughout.

Nowadays, at least there is only one mini-league stage rather than two, but it still transgresses the true essence of a Cup. Meanwhile, what of the Football League Cup, that blown up non-event which drew a massive 80,000 to Wembley for the recent Manchester United-Spurs Final? In its early rounds, leading Premiership teams scornfully fielded a reserve side. It began in two-legged obscurity, till the egregious Alan Hardaker, Football League Secretary, hell bent on subverting the historic FA Cup, staged the Final at Wembley.