Cup Shenanigans and Other Soccer Musings

One of the (few) joys of following soccer football in Britain are the annual surprises generated by the various and sundry domestic cup competitions. The big news of the past week or so is in the lesser of the two English cups, the (insert sponsor du jour) League Cup, open only to teams in the top four tiers of English club soccer.

As an aside, the term League has lost a lot of its meaning in the past generation or so; with the breakaway of the Premier League, the top flight is technically not part of the old Football League. Over the past 34 seasons the Football Conference, at the fifth tier, acquired an automatic promotion slot to the League (1987), a second slot (2003), and an ever increasing number of clubs operating on a full time status, 19 of 24 in 2011/12.  The Conference is a national league, and in 2004 it acquired its own regional feeder leagues (North and South).  Thus, the distinction between League and “non-League” football has lost some of its meaning.

Nevertheless, the League 2 (fourth tier) side Bradford City will be playing in the League Cup final, against Premiership side Swansea City (the last four words appearing in that order still seems strange).  This is the first time since 1962 that a club from the fourth tier of the English leagues has made the League Cup final, and by my reckoning only the second instance of this happening (as this competition was only inaugurated in 1960/61). On paper at least, Bradford City did not have an easy progression to the final. By definition, every team they faced was in their division or higher, and as it turned out, only one of the six were in their division. En route to the final, they defeated Notts County (3rd tier), Watford (2nd), Burton Albion (4th), Wigan, Arsenal, and Aston Villa; the latter three all top tier sides. I say on paper, because at least for Arsenal (the English side I follow) I know Arsène Wenger’s tacit policy for the League Cup has always been to play the kids. I have no idea what sort of side Wigan played, but given the dreadful season Villa are having, winning the semi-final of this competition had to be a priority (they’re currently 17th in the table, only one point above the relegation zone, and lost in the FA Cup fourth round to second tier side Millwall on Friday.)

While it’s not exceptionally rare for a team outside of the top flight to make the League Cup final (by my quick count it’s happened 15 times since 1961), a fourth tier side in the final is remarkable. Even more remarkable is that if Bradford City defeat Swansea City in the final, they’ll gain entry to the third qualifying round for the 2013-14 Europa League, the lesser of the two European club tournaments. Liverpool, winners of the League Cup in 2012, faced Belorussian Premier League side FC Gomel in the qualifying round of this year’s Europa League (and won 4-0 on aggregate) to give an idea what sort of competition would await a fourth division Bradford City side.  Note, this wouldn’t be their first foray into European competition; in 2000 they had ties against a Lithuanian, Dutch, and Russian club in the defunct Intertoto Cup.  How they qualified I do not know, as they only had a two year run in the Premiership, finishing 17th in 99/00 and relegated in 00/01.

The FA Cup fourth round threw up some surprises this past weekend as well.  Millwall (2nd) beat Aston Villa; MK Dons (3rd) beat relegation bound QPR; Leeds (2nd) beat Spurs; Brentford (3rd) drew with Chelsea, and Arsenal’s youth academy barely got past Brighton (2).  The biggest stories are Oldham Athletic (3) defeating Liverpool, and Luton Town, of the fifth tier Conference, defeating Premiership side Norwich City.  To use a not completely valid baseball analogy, that would be similar to the Eugene Emeralds of the short-season A Northwest League (who used to play in one of the best baseball venues ever, Civic Stadium) defeating the San Francisco Giants.

I’d rather not discuss St Mirren 3-2 Celtic in the Scottish League Cup semi-final, however.

35 comments on this post.
  1. AlexD:

    Wenger put on a much stronger side for Brighton than he has fielded for the Cup in past years. He rested Cazorla, Wilshere and Theo, but played Ox, Diaby and Ramsey all of whom have played alot inPremier, Diaby when fit. And he brought Wilshere and Theo on to secure the win. Back he played Jenks, solid earlier in the year when Sagna was out, and Santos, who was rubbish and played a huge part in both Brighton’s scores. And he replace Santos with Gibbs to prevent a third goal. Wenger apparently sees the cup as his best shot at breaking the silverware drought, with Utd 19 out of reach and tough draws in Champions league ahead.

  2. actor212:

    Luton Town, of the fifth tier Conference, defeating Premiership side Norwich City. To use a not completely valid baseball analogy, that would be similar to the Eugene Emeralds of the short-season A Northwest League (who used to play in one of the best baseball venues ever, Civic Stadium) defeating the San Francisco Giants.

    Actually, it’s more like your local bar softball team beating the San Diego Padres, but you’re in the right ballpark.

  3. actor212:

    I agree, altho Wenger said at the start of the campaign that he was not interested in Cup titles, and would focus on the League title and the Champions League. Not only has he no shot at the League title, he might not even finish top four.

    I’m flabbergasted at how awful the Gunners defense has been this year. What is Santos doing anywhere near the box?

    The Oldham/Liverpool game was very intriguing and fun to watch, but it was odd to see Liverpool get dragged down into Oldham’s game. One of the nastiest, dirtiest games I’ve seen in a while.

  4. actor212:

    I was intrigued to read in the Bradford article about the payout to winning teams. No wonder none of the top teams focus on the _______________(insert sponsor here) League Cup.

  5. Hanspeter:

    Everytime I hear about the various Brit and/or European multi-level club cups, I think how great they would be applied to North American competition, especially given the chance of seeing the Cowboys relegated.

    Baseball and hockey definitely have the depth of teams available with AAA, AA, etc and AHL, ECHL, etc. The biggest holdback is that most of the lower tiers belong to the top tier team and hold drafted players.

    Basketball and football don’t have as deep a field of lower leagues, but could easily be taken care of by moving college teams into leagues (BCS = tier 2, FCS = tier 3…).

    But then again, the relegation concept might be a bit too complex for people who fall for death panels blather.

  6. actor212:

    About the only sport I can think of that allows for the possibilities inherent in these Cups is Open Tennis.

    MLB teams sometimes play their AAA teams, but as an exhibition.

  7. Dave Brockington:

    Back in grad school, I managed our departmental softball team for five or six seasons. I remember arguing with Farley one night in the pub, who insisted that given a 162 game season, one of us would get a base hit in a major league baseball game. I was not as confident as Rob that such an event was possible. I get the Padres / Norwich City comparison, but I don’t see any average softball team beating a ML team, whereas 5 > 1 does happen in soccer cup competitions. I’m fairly certain Luton Town are still fully professional . . . which can’t be said for most softball teams.

  8. actor212:

    Dave,

    Wigan left Beausejour and Maloney off the pitch until the 77 minute, altho McManaman, who Maloney replaced, is slated to be a starter perhaps next season.

    Villa had most of its starting line up in, except for Darren Bent, which is surprising because you figure the lower division team is going to focus on defending and you’d really want as many scoring threats as possible out there, and I’m pretty sure Bent is a bigger threat than Benteke.

  9. actor212:

    I think the FOX blokes called them team with semi-pro players mixed in.

    And by the way, no one has gone a full 162 game season without a hit. I don’t think even a starting pitcher in the NL has ever done that.

  10. jon:

    I thought the biggest news in British (football) soccer was that Huncote finally won a game?

  11. Chester Allman:

    SB Nation has done some really fun stuff imagining promotion/relegation in college football, including a seven-year simulation of the idea in action.

  12. Benjamin:

    In 1962, Bob Buhl started 33 games for the Cubs and Braves and got 0 hits in 85 plate appearances. http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/b/buhlbo01.shtml

    In 1964, Ron Herbel started 22 games for the Giants and got 0 hits in 54 plate appearances. http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/h/herbero01.shtml

    I’d bet there are others.

  13. Dave Brockington:

    Yeah, that was fun until I clicked on the 2005 season and saw “Demoted to Mountain West: Washington”.

  14. Jon:

    I love me some premier league, but I still call it soccer, still call them teams, still call it a field, still call a draw a tie, and a tie a game. I dunno because Murica.

  15. Don:

    What language is this?

  16. Chester Allman:

    I had the same reaction! Though it dovetails with my analogy of Washington being the Leeds United of college football.

  17. actor212:

    22 starts is hardly a complete season, tho.

  18. Benjamin:

    Well I guess you could look at Buhl (the first guy), who pitched 214 innings from April and September (including 8 complete games).

    Or don’t. I mean, if you don’t want to.

  19. wengler:

    It’s a pity Spurs lost to dirty Leeds on their trash-filled cow pasture. The collective fouling against Scottie Parker was quite atrocious. At least Leeds won’t have the advantage of a ruddy pitch when they play City next round.

  20. Leeds man:

    Apart from criminal charges against star players and financial disaster, you mean?

  21. Leeds man:

    Waaaaah!

  22. Pestilence:

    Or the Browns making the Superbowl :p

  23. Chester Allman:

    Well (and I say this as a Washington fan), there was criminality, and sanctions, and miscellaneous no-goodishness, all of which ultimately crippled recruiting (which for a college football program has the same effect as a financial disaster), and a proud and ancient program slid into a hole from which it is only now beginning to emerge.

    So not exactly the same, but there are similarities.

  24. gaderson:

    The Arsenal game was another nail-biter — can’t they get a solid defense and hold out the game? But did enjoy watching Sp*rs and Liverpool loose.
    I grew up one block from Civic Stadium and even played a couple of games there in High School (South Eugene HS is just over the pedestrian bridge from the stadium). We went to many a game, saw Eric Davis, Tom Gordon and Bob Hamlin of the ballplayers I remember (never really followed baseball after the ’92 strike). It was a great ballpark and one I miss — but not the drunks peeing in the bushes after $1 beer nights.

  25. Bill Murray:

    well he also had 18 relief appearances and pitched 161 innings

  26. Tybalt:

    It is never a pity when Spurs lose. That’s what football is all about.

  27. Leeds man:

    Another bloody Arsenal supporter?

  28. Minzo:

    You should post about football more often. Enjoyed the post and the comments.

  29. AlexD:

    Wenger always says the only silver that matters is Premiership and Champions, which is why it is interesting that he played so many of his stronger players.

    He used Santos because he has 8 matches in January and had to figure out a way to rest somebody. That slug should not be anywhere near the pitch after his performance in the Utd match.

    Statistically, Arsenal is still near the top in defense in EPL, in terms of goals against. But this reflects more a case of dominating inferior teams while giving up scores to stronger ones. Only one point taken in 5 matches v. Utd, City and Chelsea, with only one match remaining v top 3, Utd at Emirates.

  30. AlexD:

    Leeds chant:

    “A shit team near Arsenal, you’re just a shit team near Arsenal.”

  31. Leeds man:

    Poor Aaron Lennon.

  32. Alex:

    (weeping)

  33. wengler:

    6th place must feel nice. Arse have been there(or further down) all year long.

  34. Alex:

    Well, is an almost new experience for Arsenal, so I’m still processing what it might be like to finish that far down the table. Fortunately, I can consult Spurs fans on that.

    In return, I can tell them what it feels like to have an EPL or top flight championship season in their lifetime. I think Jack Wilshere’s Grandad was in diapers the last time Spurs won anything.

  35. Alex:

    Regarding criminal charges,two words: Venoy Overton

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