When you’re sitting at your desk, wishing the day away and daydreaming about the football career that you were so cruelly robbed of, what do you think of? Captaining your national team to victory in the World Cup? Winning the FA Cup or the Premier League? Scoring the winning goal in the FA Cup final? Saving a penalty in a crucial play-off match? Whatever it is that you do idly daydream about, I wouldn’t mind betting that you probably don’t idly daydream about finishing in thirteenth place in the Premier League. Why is it, then, that clubs such as Reading have taken the decision to field weakened teams in the FA Cup?
They’re not the only ones to have to done this over the last few seasons or so, but Reading’s decision to pick an under strength team at Tottenham in the Third Round of the FA Cup has been this season’s most high-profile case, so it’s worth taking a closer look at them in particular. Reading are, you may be surprised to know, one of the oldest clubs in English football. They were founded in 1871, and were voted into the Football League in 1920. As long ago as 1913, they toured Italy and beat Genoa and Milan on their own turf. They were nicknamed “The Biscuitmen” after the massive Huntley & Palmers biscuit factory that dominated the town and played at the rustic yet homely Elm Park. They bounced around the lower divisions, offending no-one, and earned the nation’s sympathy in 1983 when their supporters combined with supporters of local rivals Oxford United to off a proposed merger of the two clubs by Robert Maxwell to form a proposed new club called Thames Valley Royals.
Somewhere along the line, though, Reading have started to get delusions of grandeur. They moved to the Madejski Stadium in 1998 (it’s named after their autocratic owner, John Madejski), and were promoted to the Premier League in 2006. This season, their second in the Premier League, they decided to field an under-strength team in the FA Cup. Manager Steve Coppell was fairly blunt in his assessment of the situation: “I have got to do what I feel is right for this football club. I have been consistent every year and I will continue to be consistent. But we are going there to win – we are not going there to keep the score down”. So, Reading FC, who haven’t managed a major trophy in one hundred and thirty-seven years, are now too big for the FA Cup.
I am, I think, a realist. Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool are focussed on bigger prizes than the FA Cup. They, however, have big enough, strong enough squads to sail into the semi-finals of the cup with their youth teams. I’ve heard it said before that any one of these four clubs could win the FA Cup if they wanted to, and there’s an element of truth to this. The likes of Reading, though… I don’t get it. They are currently in thirteenth place in the Premier League. They’re not likely to get relegated, and they’re not likely to get sucked into a relegation battle, either. They were knocked out of the League Cup before the end of September, and with just thirty-eight fixtures to play in the league, they can hardly claim fixture congestion as an excuse, can they? Ironically, a full-strength Reading team might have beaten Tottenham at White Hart Lane last Saturday, and now they have a replay that they almost certainly didn’t want next week. The draw for the Fourth Round has probably done for them anyway. They have to travel to Old Trafford even if they do see off a vastly improved Tottenham team. They’re looking at having played a forty-three match season. The irony is that the historical evidence indicates that the FA Cup doesn’t impact on a club’s season. It took until Brighton & Hove Albion in 1983 for a team to make an FA Cup final and be relegated in the same season. One hundred and eleven years. It simply isn’t something that happens anything like every season.
I think that they are selling their fans short. Having got themselves in the Premier League, they have a decent chance of making the FA Cup final – the strongest team that Reading FC has ever had must mean that Reading FC must have its best chance ever of actually winning something, right? Isn’t this, you know, what football is supposed to be about? Reading may well stay up in the Premier League this season, but they’re fooling themselves if they think that resting players for a couple of FA Cup matches is going to make the difference between staying up and not. Ultimately, they’re sacrificing the possibility of giving their supporters something that, in all honesty, money can’t buy in return for another season of mid-table mediocrity and their supporters should remember that for every glamorous match against Manchester United or Liverpool there will be two against the likes of Bolton Wanderers or Middlesbrough.
There is a way of resolving this. If the likes of Reading consider themselves “too big” for the FA Cup, then perhaps they should just not enter it at all. If it’s, you know, too much of an effort to take the FA Cup seriously, why bother being in it in the first place? I think (and this is a bit of a wild guess, but bear with me) that the world’s oldest cup competition might just about be able to withstand the shock of Reading not being in it, and the same goes for Bolton Wanderers, Birmingham City, or any of the rest of those Premier League also-rans whose sole existence now seems to be to do whatever they have to do in order to continue picking up that Sky TV cheque every year. If the summit of your ambitions is to finish in thirteenth place in the Premier League every season, then you frankly deserve it.