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The Difficult Past and Uncertain Future of the English Football League Cup

13 Jan

Without the fig leaf of a corporate sponsor the EFL Cup – as it has been branded this season – seems decidedly bare. For this pioneer of corporate sponsorship there are no ribbons in corporate colours, no promotional tie-ins and no cup final tickets reserved for executives and lucky competition winners. In all it is an even more depressing and dour affair than it has been in recent years. Some salvation may be at hand, thanks to a new sponsor, Thai energy drink company Carabao and from June 2017 the EFL Cup will become the Carabao Cup, until at least 2020, but whilst the deal may safeguard the cup for a few more years, the vultures will undoubtedly continue to circle as in an age when the FA Cup is struggling to find space in both congested fixture lists and the hearts of fans a second major domestic cup – a rarity in European football – looks increasingly anachronistic.

Question marks over the cups continued existence are also by no means a recent phenomenon and at least some of its current problems can be traced back to the circumstances surrounding the cups birth. Initially proposed by Football League Secretary Alan Hardaker the cup was merely one element of a package of reform aimed at rejuvenating English football and halting the slide which had begun to set in after the immediate post-war boom years.

The main thrust of Hardaker’s plans involved a restructuring of the league into five divisions of twenty clubs, reducing each clubs number of fixtures. As a compensatory measure for the clubs Hardaker put forward the idea of a new cup competition involving League clubs, to be played as a pre-season contest.

Hardaker’s restructuring plan would however, be rejected by the clubs. They were though receptive to the idea of the League Cup, which received approval at the League’s annual meeting of 1960. A further deviation from Hardaker’s master plan saw the cup instituted as mid-week contest during the regular season, played under the floodlights which had become prevalent at league grounds over the preceding decade. An ironic twist being that the cup, part of reforms aimed at easing fixture congestion, actually acted to increase the fixture burden.

Although it counted Football League President Joe Richards among its supporters (Richards had purchased the trophy with his own money and had his name engraved upon it) when it was launched in the 1960/61 season the cup encountered its share of indifference. Of the 92 eligible clubs 87 signed up to compete in its first year and by its third year this was down to only 80 clubs. Overall the big clubs viewed the contest with such disinterest that lesser sides were able to prosper and in the first year Division Two Rotherham United made the final whilst in its second year the final was contested by Division Two Norwich and Division Four Rochdale.

Soon dubbed ‘Hardaker’s Folly’ by its detractors prospects for the cup looked bleak indeed. That the cup is still around today is thanks largely to two developments; A Wembley final and the prize of a UEFA cup slot for the winners, the latter secured by Hardaker’s strong-arming of UEFA. 97,952 people attended the first Wembley final in 1967 between Queens Park Rangers and West Bromwich Albion, beating the combined attendance of the two legs of the previous year’s final by over 37,000. The two sides provided a spectacle fit for the grand venue as West Bromwich established a two goal lead, only to see third-tier QPR stage a remarkable comeback. Headlines were assured when it was the appropriately named Mark Lazarus who won the game by netting QPR’s winner in the 81st minute.

This medicine seemed to have had the desired effect and by the early 1970s the cup was enjoying something of a golden age. The most striking piece of evidence of this being the appearance of Chelsea on Top of the Pops, performing their cup final song Blue is The Colour, released to mark their appearance in the 1972 final which reached a chart high of number 5. The 1980s though proved a more difficult time for the cup – and for football in general. Attendances slumped for both cup fixtures and league games, but even in this environment the cup retained its prestige as a respected part of the English game whilst successfully pioneering corporate sponsorship with a landmark deal during the 1981-82 season with the Milk Marketing Board which led to the cup being officially renamed as the Milk Cup .

A new challenge awaited in the 1990s as the coming of the Premier League era saw an increasing shift in clubs priorities towards the ever more lucrative league programme. Manchester United and Arsenal among those who took to fielding cobbled together sides of fringe players and youth players in league cup fixtures – a practice which could, on occasion, spectacularly backfire – such as in 1995 when a weakened Manchester United found themselves being turned over 3-0 by third-tier strugglers York City in front of a stunned Old Trafford in the first leg of their second round tie.

The further expansion of the Champions League in 1999 only added to the cups problems; Not only did it increase the fixture burden of top clubs, but it also greatly devalued the UEFA qualification slot as many more sides could expect to qualify for Europe through the league. Then in the 2001/02 season the cup underwent some drastic pruning at the roots, first and second round matches changing from 2-legged to single games. At a stroke this reduced the competition from 154 games the season before to just 93 games.

In recent years the cup has continued to experience of criticism and disrespect from clubs, managers, players, pundits and fans alike. It is though not without its friends, or even its redeeming features: It is still competitive in the very latter stages, the relatively cheap tickets provide an opportunity for those who might otherwise be priced out of grounds whilst for fans of some Premiership sides the cup retained value as being the one major title within their reach in an era of growing inequality. As pundit Colin Murray pointed out in 2014 the cup “is one trophy Premier League teams outside of the big guns have a real chance of capturing.”

It is therefore a worrying sign when in 2016 for a fourth round game at their St. Marys ground attendance was low enough for the club to close an entire stand to the public, whilst on the field manager Claude Puel announced nine changes from their previous league game. Such indifference at a club like Southampton, whose last major honour was in 1976, serves to highlight the stiff battle for survival the cup faces beyond 2020. To stand any chance the competition must find a new way of being relevant to both clubs and fans alike.

Why We Need to Stop Complaining and Enjoy the Premier League

9 Jan

You don’t have to go very far to find someone criticising the Premier league. the complaints themselves repeated so often as to be familiar: Players are paid too much, not enough wealth trickles down to the grass roots, the gap between the elite and the rest of the field has grown into a gaping chasm. Ordinary fans are priced out of grounds, clubs don’t take cups seriously and so on.

In many of these cases there is some legitimacy to the complaints, though in other cases it can feel as if there is an expectation that the Premier League should solve all the games ills – not to mention societies. This however, is no attempt to debate the merits, or otherwise of the multitudinous critiques on offer, but simply to say that as football fans we should simply sit back and enjoy the Premier League.

The league, as it is, contains the world’s best players, managers and serves up a compelling spectacle with a side-order of real-life soap opera. Despite years of inflation-busting ticket price rises, fans flock to matches, in many cases filling grounds to capacity.

The truth is however,  that whilst we may have been singing “footballs coming home” in 1996 English football has no God given right to host the world’s most lucrative football contest and the harder truth is that one day it will all come to an end.

We may lay claim seniority as the league is the world’s oldest – beginning in 1888 – but in reality this counts for very little – just look at the recent past. By the time it was approaching its centenary in the late 1980s the league was in a truly sorry state; Chronic underinvestment had resulted in outdated and unsafe stadia, hooliganism dragged the games reputation through the mud and attendances, which had been declining for decades, had slumped to their lowest levels since before the war. In the meantime the league periodically lost its best players to leagues in Italy, Spain and France – even our biggest and most prestigious clubs unable to hold on to them.

No greater contrast could be made than with Italy’s Serie A; Average crowds at the time were considerably higher that of the English league (according to the European Football Statistics Website in the 1984/85 season Serie A crowds averaged upwards of 38,000  compared to just above 21,000 for the English Division One). Italian clubs also routinely broke transfer fee records and ahead of the 1990 World Cup Italian stadia received a massive windfall of public money.

Today however, the position couldn’t be more different. Italian league football has experienced two decades of decline. Its clubs, no longer the powers they once were, have seen their financial clout diminish and the last time an Italian club broke the world transfer fee record was in the year 2000 when Hernan Crespo moved from Parma to Lazio for upwards of 335 million. Further evidence of the relative decline of Italian football can be found in Deloitte’s 2016 Football Monet League which ranks European Clubs according to the revenue they generate. Just one Italian side, Juventus, makes the top 10, compared to five English sides.

The slide of Italian football can be put down to a whole range of factors – one of which is the impact of corruption scandals on the league. Equally the rise of the English League is due to a unique confluence of historical, social and technological factors.  The Taylor Report, in the wake of 1989’s Hillsborough tragedy, led to a wave of investment in stadia, with many clubs opting to construct brand new grounds. These grounds were not only safer, but featured revenue generating additions. The club shop became a ‘superstore’ and grounds included hotels, and conference facilities whilst they also included expanded executive boxes and facilities to deliver a premium match day experience.

New broadcasting technology also brought opportunity of a new transformative revenue stream. The restructuring of English Football which came about in 1992 with the Premier league breakaway enabled the top clubs to flourish by providing them with a larger slice of this growing revenue stream. Free from any responsibilities towards clubs in lower divisions the elite clubs were able to spend more on facilities and players. The price though – and the source of many of today’s complaints – was to restrict the funds available to English footballs other professional sides (a unique feature of English football being it’s sheer depth.)

All this came at the right time to enable English clubs to reap maximum benefit from the Bosman Ruling of 1995. The impact of this was to make a whole continent of football players available to whoever could pay the most in wages. This latter point is where neo-liberalism kicks in. With a low tax regime English clubs had something of an advantage when it came to paying player’s salaries which automatically put them in most countries top tax brackets.

There are of course many more factors, but what this illustrates is that English football finds itself in its current position not because of divine intervention, but because of a range of circumstances. That such circumstances change is however, an inevitability. Already there is uncertainty over Brexit which may well have an impact on English clubs ability to recruit continental talent unhindered. Beyond this there have at various points been touted proposals for a European Super League, whilst the Chinese League can be seen by some as a future challenger to the Premier Leagues hegemony.

That the Premier League’s fortunes are largely based on broadcasting revenue which can evaporate at a moment’s notice is perhaps a further cause for concern. The story of Serie A ultimately shows that even a league with a seemingly solid foundation of success can be undermined. The final point is this: Whatever the cause of the Premier Leagues fall may be the fall will come and we will look back on this period of English football as a golden age, one of packed (relatively new) grounds, the world’s top players and pure excitement. We will walk past these grounds in our old age and our grandchildren will marvel at the stories we tell of the scenes we once saw inside. Our present complaints – even if they are justified – will have been long forgotten.

The Wessex League Twitter League 2016

30 Dec

It’s been around 18 months since I last took stock of the Twitter accounts of clubs across the Wessex League. In the intervening period there have been a few changes with several clubs departing and others arriving; Among the departures were Salisbury who by quite some margin had been top of the Wessex League Twitter pile in June 2015 with 6,248 followers. Their promotion to the Southern League South & West division however, means that a new Wessex Twitter Champion can now be crowned….

3.) AFC Portchester 2,102 Followers

Porchy have climbed up from 5th place in 2015, benefiting from both a growth in followers of 841 – the biggest increase in the league, and the fall of the clubs who last year occupied 3rd and 4th. Brockenhurst who were 3rd in 2015 launched a new official Twitter account in July 2016 (the rules being that the Twitter League is based on the counts of official Twitter accounts where these are present), whilst Team Solent, who occupied 3rd spot, switched to a new football specific Twitter account in December (previously football had come under the main team Solent account which was used by sports clubs across Solent University.)

2.) Sholing FC 3,037 Followers

Runners-up for the third time in the Wessex League Twitter league Sholing have once again demonstrated an admirable level of fan engagement. By far the most prolific Tweeters the @SholingFC account has now managed 16,500 tweets, over double that of second most prolific club Fareham Town who managed 7,168. This engagement has been rewarded by an additional 730 followers – the fourth highest increase in the Wessex League. This though was not enough to secure top spot which goes to….

1.) Hamble Club FC 4,879 Followers

Wessex League newcomers Hamble Club FC have proved the surprise package in this year’s Twitter League. Hamble have made waves equally on the pitch and on social media. Currently sitting astride division one, following their promotion from the Hampshire Premier League Hamble’s official Twitter account boasts a formidable 4,879 followers. Considering there was only one Division One club in the top 10 in 2015 it really is a massive achievement.

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wsxtprm16

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Club Account Followers
Hamble Club @hambleclubfc 4879
Sholing @sholingfc 3037
AFC Portchester @afcportchester 2102
Horndean @horndean_fc 1794
Newport (IOW) @newport_iwfc 1752
Verwood Town @verwoodtownfc 1726
Blackfield & Langley @bandlfc 1632
Romsey Town @romseytownfc1 1509
Andover Town @andovertownfc 1453
Christchurch @christchurch_fc 1429
Alton @alton_fc 1348
Shaftesbury @SFC1888 1240
Hythe & Dibden @hythedibdenfc 1236
Fareham Town @farehamtownfc 1196
New Milton Town @nmtfc2016 1095
Tadley Calleva @tadleycallevafc 1028
Amesbury Town @amesburytown_fc 1018
Baffins Milton Rovers @bmrfc 1006
Cowes Sports @cowessports 1002
Moneyfields @upthemoneys 985
Fleet Spurs @fleetspurs 914
AFC Stoneham @a_stoneham 896
Ringwood Town @ringwoodtownfc 890
Bemerton Heath Harlequins @bemertonheathfc 888
United Services Portsmouth @usportsmouthfc 865
Downton @downtonfc 851
Totton & eling @tottonelingfc 844
Weymouth Res. @theterrasswl 840
Hamworthy United @hamworthyunited 837
Portland United @portlandunited 817
Lymington Town @lymingtontownfc 784
Alresford Town @alresfordtown 773
Laverstock & Ford @lavvyfc 756
East Cowes Victoria @ecvafc 740
Bashley @footballbashley 733
Fawley @fawleyafc 692
whitchurch @whitchurchutd 615
Pewsey Vale @pewseyvalefc 603
Andover New Street @andnewstreetfc 405
Brockenhurst @brock_fc 403
Folland Sports @follandsportsfc 130
Team Solent @teamsolentFC 78
Bournemouth no account na

 

Ali Dia – A View From the (Milton Road) Stand

6 Dec

As a fan of Southampton the Premier League era got off to a painfully slow start. Stuck in a ground with a capacity of barely more than 15,000 we lacked not only the financial clout, but also, it seemed, the prestige of many of our peers. The greatest hope we had then was merely to keep a seat at the top table, all the while casting envious glances at the visiting sides with their exciting foreign stars such as Cantona, Ginola, Bergkamp and Gullit.

Often too even the modest aim of survival seemed perilously close run, not least in the 1995-96 season when we were fortunate to avoid relegation only on goal difference – survival being secured by a 0-0 draw against Wimbledon. Were it not for the occasional moment of Le Tissier magic things would have been bleak indeed.

It is hard therefore to overstate the impact the managerial appointment of Graeme Souness, ahead of the 1996-97 season, had on the mood of the fans at the club. Fresh from adventure – and controversy – with Turkish giants Galatasary the appointment of Souey, then still a ‘big name’ manager, hinted strongly at a hitherto missing sense of ambition.

For his part the moustachioed one wasted little time in making promises to bring in crowd-pleasing players from across Europe. Such a proclamation was also undoubtedly music to the ears of the local press too who after a very lean year were free to churn out endless stories around potential new targets, trialists and new signings.

Amongst the splurge of newsprint though was one particularly curious tale, which stood out even then. The basic details have been told so many times in the past two decades as to hardly need repetition, but it started with reports of a telephone call Souness received from AC Milan star and World Footballer of the year George Weah. In this now infamous call Weah – or as we would later find out someone impersonating Weah – personally recommend his cousin Ali Dia, a Senegalese international, who’s CV apparently included a stint alongside Weah at Paris St. Germain.

Souness’s interest suitably piqued he agreed to take a closer look and so it was Ali Dia arrived at the club. The arrival of a triallist – even one with a supposed international pedigree – was at the time relatively unremarkable, but the fact that a world-football star like Weah had even heard of Southampton – hardly a fashionable club – was enough flattery in itself to ensure the presence of local TV crews at the clubs Staplewood training ground.

For us fans this only added to the feeling we had at the time that we were at long last joining the mainstream of the Premier League. In reality though the squad was so threadbare that Souness’s barely had enough fit players to field a team. This, along with a postponed game for the reserves he had been due to figure in, meant that Dia found himself on the bench for a Premier League game against Leeds. An injury to star-player Matt Le Tissier then saw Dia take the final step onto the field. Although untested at Premier league level having purportedly scored twice for Senegal in a recent international expectation was nevertheless high. Almost immediately it seemed well founded. My seat in the Dell’s Milton Road end providing me the perfect vantage point when as the freshly-introduced Dia tested the keeper with a powerful low shot towards the near post.

From some standpoints this was the waste of a golden opportunity, but the crowd, myself among them, seemed happy enough with the effort at the time to be chanting Dia’s name. This brief moment of adulation was though as good as it got for Dia who failed to make any further mark on the game. His Premiership career ignominiously halted just short of the final whistle when he was himself substituted off for defender Ken Monkou.

In fairness to Dia, the Saints performance that day was hardly a vintage, but the question increasingly being asked was what had the world’s best player seen that we’d missed?

A few days after the Leeds game Dia made another appearance in the red and white, coming on as a substitute for the reserves in a game against Chelsea in which the Saints lost 2-0 on Wednesday the 27th. There is little record of Dia’s performance on that occasion, but despite the clubs programme for the next home game against Aston Villa on the 7th December boasting Dia’s arrival at the club brought the number of full-internationals at the club to 12 it seems clear that Dia’s saints career was at an end.

Meanwhile scrutiny of Dia’s back-story, particularly around his link to Weah, was growing and the Sunday Mirror duly provided an expose on the 15th of December which revealed that all was not what it seemed. By this time Dia had returned to the North East (immediately before joining Saints Dia had made one appearance for Blyth Spartans) where he turned out for Gateshead the day before the Mirror’s story broke, getting on the scoresheet in a 5-0 win over Bath City.

Dia’s career would however never really take off and after graduating with a degree in Business in 2001, he appears to have quietly slipped away. Over the intervening two decades the story of Ali (or Aly – according to more recent reports) Dia has attained legendary status. In part this has been because Dia, in an increasingly social media saturated world, has enigmatically kept a remarkably low-profile – though more recently attempts to track down Dia appear to have made some headway.

The story is compelling for another reason too; Whatever his own personal motivations, or circumstances Dia lived out every fans dream of getting onto the pitch. It was a dream I understood well, particularly as the Dell was one of those old-style grounds which provided you with a seat so close to the action. So close, in fact, that it didn’t seem such a leap to imagine being on the pitch yourself. It seemed crazy, but I’d often wonder if I could somehow score a crucial goal just by being in the right place at the right time? Was it possible? Aly Dia very nearly did.

Are Football Clubs Doing Enough to Attract Fans?

21 Nov

Do Premier League clubs need fans at all? This is the question posed in a post on The Ball is Round blog. The main thrust of the piece is that with incomes from other streams such as sponsorship, broadcasting growing at such alarming rates the actual income from fans turning up has declined in importance so much as to render it comparatively unimportant.

This caught my attention as I wrote an article some time back in When Saturday Comes which made the suggestion that for clubs it was easier to chase a greater chunk of the increasing broadcasting revenue pie, than it was to sink money into costly – not to mention complicated – long-term ground improvement projects. My argument followed that as a result of this dynamic relatively little of the enourmous amounts of money flowing into football would go into ground improvement projects. Certainly there would be no return to the stadium boom of the late 1990s and early-to-mid noughties. This however, proved to be a rather controversial article. Since adopting a new comment-free format the original comments on the WSC site have vanished, but among the criticisms offered were that in a number of cases clubs have been investing in ground projects.

The Ball is Round article got me to think again on the topic of attendances in the Premier league and this dynamic whereby putting bums on seats simply does not matter as much to clubs as pursuing other revenue streams. Since I wrote my WSC article Tottenham – one of the few clubs who didn’t demolish and relocate in the stadia boom – have finally moved out of White Hart Lane, and are in temporary residence at Wembley. West Ham have also moved into the Olympic Stadium – which was funded overwhelmingly by public money. Elsewhere there have been gains in capacity, such as Liverpool adding 8,500 seats to their main stand, whilst other clubs such as Chelsea and Everton are pursuing plans for new grounds, but taking a look at the big picture overall activity is noticeably slower than in the recent past. From the 1990s onward there was an unprecedented construction boom as clubs brought their grounds up to date after a decades-long cycle of low investment; According to the Deloitte 2012 Annual Review of Football Finance, over the previous 20 years clubs collectively invested around £3 billion in grounds and facilities, including the construction of over 30 new stadiums.

One noticeable impact of this construction slow-down is that the rapid growth in attendances which was seen over the first decade of the Premier League era has slowed down considerably. It could be said that perhaps this is a natural tailing off of demand, but with many games sold-out or near capacity there is strong evidence that there is still plenty of unmet demand out there. The Premier League still also trails behind the Bundesliga in putting bums on seats. European Football Statistics puts average attendance over the 2015-16 season there at 43,300 – still significantly ahead of the 36,461 for the Premier League over the same period. There are some explanatory factors here, particularly that the Bundesliga contains only 18 clubs rather than 20 which may have an impact when looking at averages, whilst standing is permitted in areas of German grounds.

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This latter point may chime with those currently advocating safe standing, although in practice converting all-seater stands to standing is unlikely to be straightforward and beyond the stadia themselves there are a whole range of infrastructure concerns such as the ability of transportation networks to cope. Secondly even if safe standing were a cheap and easy solution to increasing Premier League ground capacity at the present time it is likely that the same dynamic which leads to under-investment in stadia would remain in place over the long-term.

Ultimately though one of the interesting debating points which came from the reaction to my WSC article is that the question is how much should clubs be investing in the sort of facilities which will enable them to attract even more fans to games? Like with anything in the world of football there is a range of opinion – where do you stand?

Cup Football – An Exploration

9 Nov

Of late there has not been much going on in the world of Row Z. I can now reveal the reason for this is that all my energies have gone into finishing off a project I started around two years ago. It all began with an article I wrote for Late Tackle magazine about various cup competitions which were, shall we say, not the most highly regarded of tournaments. What struck me was that even these unloved pieces of silverware had, in many cases, some quite interesting back-stories. The idea then came of putting some of these into a book – which seemed like a great idea at the time, but less so a year on! Anyway much reading and research later it has all come together in a book which will – for the next five days be free on Kindle, or available in hard-copy. As a little preview, here is the first chapter on the origins of cup football:

 

For Football Association secretary Charles Alcock the FA Cup final of 1872 was a double triumph; Not only had he just witnessed the successful denouement of the tournament which he himself had conceived of and set up, but somewhat remarkably, he had also captained the winning side, Wanderers. Made up of chiefly of former pupils of the Harrow public school Wanderers emerged victorious from what had been a group of fifteen initial entrants to the tournament: Barnes, Civil Service, Hitchin, Crystal Palace (not the current Crystal Palace, but a side who were dissolved in 1876), Maidenhead, Marlow, Queen’s Park, Donington School, Upton Park, Clapham Rovers, Royal Engineers, Reigate Priory, Wanderers, Harrow Chequers and Hampstead Heathens.

Wanderers had sealed victory in the final with a 1-0 victory over Royal Engineers in front of a crowd of 2,000 paying spectators at the Kennington Oval – a ground which more usually was home to Surrey Cricket Club, for whom Alcock also held the position ofsecretary. This goal came from Morton Betts, playing under a pseudonym A. H. Chequer, owing apparently to his membership of Harrow School’s Chequers club. Such playing under a pseudonym appears to have been a common feature of the era – In another case the A. C. Smith playing in goal for Portsmouth Association in the final of the Portsmouth & District Cup in 1887 was none other than Sherlock Holmes creator Dr Arthur Conan Doyle

Although the FA Cup had been open to all members of the Football Association, the requirement for a financial contribution and the fact that all games would be played in London acted as a barrier to clubs from the provinces, giving the list of entrants a distinctly London-centric flavour. Notably absent were any clubs from Sheffield, a place where football had also taken an early hold. Despite this however, the inclusion of Glasgow’s Queens Park at least hinted at the ambition for the contest to be a truly national endeavor.

Logistics and organisation would though prove to a major challenge for the cup. With the fledgling game lacking infrastructure finding pitches could be difficult, whilst travel costs were also an issue. Such obstacles would mean that three of the fifteen, Donington School, Reigate Priory and Harrow Chequers left the competition without playing a single game. Queens Park would find themselves the chief beneficiaries of these drop-outs, allowing them to progress all the way to the semi-final without so much as kicking a ball in anger. The Glasgow club would however, themselves succumb to off-field forces when after holding Wanderers to a 0-0 draw they were forced to withdraw from the contest as the club could not afford to remain in London for a replay. This allowed Wanderers through to contest the inaugural final against Royal Engineers who had defeated Crystal Palace 3-0 in their semi-final, which had gone to a replay, also at the Kennington Oval

The FA Cup is often referred to as the first knockout competition of its type in the world, so where had Alcock’s idea for the contest originated? The answer is in the same public schools which had formed the hotbed of the game in its early years. Alcock, like his Wanderers team-mates, was himself an old Harrovian and it is thought that the inspiration for the cup came from his memory of an inter-house ‘sudden death’ competition. There was however, another potential source of inspiration which Alcock may have drawn upon; Just a few years earlier, in 1867, Sheffield Theatre Owner Thomas Youdan had put up a prize of an engraved silver claret jug. This was supplied by Martin & Hall Silversmiths of Broad Street Sheffield – who would also go on to provide the first FA Cup – and was contested by 12 local teams. The tournament was played under Sheffield rules and although the first two rounds followed a knockout format the final was contested between three teams who played each other in turn. This final round took place in front of 3,000 spectators at Bramall Lane where Hallam beat Norfolk and Mackenzie to finish first, while Norfolk beat Mackenzie to finish second and claim the prize of a two-handed silver goblet encircled with athletic figures which had been purchased with the proceeds of the gate money.

Whether, or not the Youdan Cup, which was never repeated, had indeed been a source of  inspiration for the FA Cup it is clear that cup football as it is today is a legacy of the role played by the public school system in developing and nurturing the modern game. Alcock, in both his role as a senior administrator off the field and a top player on the field, was a typical example of how in that era those steeped in the English public school system exerted influence over all aspects of the game. In its first decade the FA Cup was dominated by teams which were linked with the top public schools. Wanderers themselves reached the final five times in those ten years, in 1872, 1873, 1876, 1877 and 1878, winning the trophy on each occasion. In that same period Old Etonians also contested five finals in 1875, 1876, 1879, 1881 and 1882, with victories coming in 1879 and 1882.

The period of public school dominance was however, relatively brief. The turning point came in 1883, when Blackburn Olympic defeated the defending cup holders Old Etonians 2-1 with an extra time goal. Not only were Olympic the first team from the North of England to win the cup, but the side, backed by an iron magnate, encapsulated a new professional approach to the game which had been increasingly taking hold, particularly in the North where games attracted good crowds; As well as displaying a tactical astuteness in their play player-coach Jack Hunter had taken his team away to Blackpool ahead of their semi-final against Old Carthusians. There, beside the sea, the sides preparations had included a monitored diet and work on their fitness – the latter being something which was to prove a deciding factor in both the semi-final and the final itself.

Although Olympic themselves would fade into obscurity in a relatively short period the wider movement they represented proved irresistible. The balance of footballing power shifted away from the gentlemen-amateurs of the South towards the new professionals of the North – 1883 was the last occasion a public school side would ever reach the final – and with pressure building professionalism would finally be legalised in 1885, a move which could count Alcock as one of its supporters. Just a few years later in 1888, merely five years after Olympics triumph, the Football League – the world’s first – began, consisting almost exclusively of clubs from the North.

Whilst this new format would bring an end to the effective monopoly the cup, and cups in general, had held over competitive football the coming of the league did not immediately harm the FA cup and in fact it could be ventured that it had provided it with a boost. This was because the Football League provided a level of organisational structure and regular income which allowed clubs to develop, both on the field and off it. Football was undoubtedly a growth market and the benefits of this were felt by the cup. This is demonstrated by the growth in Cup Final attendances. When Olympic won the cup in 1883 it was witnessed by a crowd in the region of 8,000. In 1888, the year the league began, 19,000 saw the final between West Bromwich Albion and Preston north End, but within just a few years of the league, in 1893, attendance at the final was up to 45,000, before in 1901 the attendance broke the 100,000 barrier for the first time as over 114,000 saw Tottenham Hotspur and Sheffield United play out a 2-2 draw – Spurs winning the replay 3-1.

In such a growing market there was ample room in which cup football and the league format could happily coexist. Subsequently this coexistence could be seen to endure even in leaner times right up – it can be argued – until the 1990s.

 

Project Future Football: August Update

6 Aug

Once again, a big thank you to those of you who have already written an article for Project Future Football. For those of you who haven’t seen my earlier posts Project Future Football was an idea I had for bloggers and football fans to come together in collaborating in the creation of an anthology of writing. The topic of this anthology is football in the future.

This anthology will then be self-published made available on Amazon later this year. Any profits from this will be donated to the charity Street League.

My big worry was that there would not be enough articles, but so far there have been some great articles on the future of tickets, grass roots football and politics as well as holographic footballers and cyborg referees.

I am though looking for just a few more. You can write about any topic of your choice, just as long as it’s about football in the future. As a guide to length anything from 500 – 1500 words, along with a small bio about you and, if applicable, your blog.

I’d particularly welcome articles on women’s football, kit design and tactics.

As another way to get involved you can Tweet your prediction for football in the future using the hashtag #futurefootball. The best will make it into the anthology.

My email is row.z.football@gmail.com

If you’d like to know more about Project Future Football, or Street league see here.

Neil

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