Soccer

Jack: How hallucinations of mediocrity killed dreams of Glory

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Kristian Jack
8/28/2014 12:29:06 AM
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It takes a lot for a radio talk show host to be lost for words but the caller had done it.

It was the final Sunday of the Premier League season, the national radio station was taking calls from across England, getting fans to give their verdict on their team as another domestic season came to a close.

The conversation seemed to be going like many others until the Norwich City fan admitted he wasn't disappointed his team had been relegated out of the Premier League.

Stunned silence. This was not supposed to be said. The host got himself together.

'What do you mean you don't want to be competing at the top level'?

The guest continued. He talked about wanting to see his club win again, by playing at a level that they can succeed in. He'd been thankful for three years against the best but he had grown tired of watching his team scramble for points, losing 50 league games a long the way.

What a novel idea. A fan wanting to see his team win more games than they lose regardless of the opposition.

As Vince Lombardi once said 'if winning isn't everything then why do they keep score?'

The 2014-15 English football season is less than three weeks old but already it appears the race to be Premier League champions is down to two teams with two others believing they might have a chance. In total, seven teams are in the race for the four Champions League spots and the gap between them and the other 13 has never been bigger.

In the last five seasons the top seven have finished in the top eight every year and in the top seven three times, including each of last two. Only Newcastle of 2011-12 and Aston Villa of 2009-10 have entered this exclusive group during this time.

So what are fans of the other 13 hoping for?

These days it is easy to find out. Read any season preview magazine or listen to club podcasts and the answers are virtually the same.

They usually include all or many of these wishes:

- Do not get relegated
- Stay a long way away from the bottom three all season
- Play well at home
- Beat one of the big teams
- Have a good run in the cup competitions

It is easy to say the most important of these factors is the first. But important to whom?

Those in charge of running a football club are often fired if they do not achieve this while those who own the club often lose a lot of money if their team drops out of the Premier League so it is clear what the mandate is from those representing a club.

With managers, and occasionally, chairman of clubs having weekly press conferences with the media it has never been easier for a club's message and, subsequently, their priorities to be public.

Nevertheless we should be cautious when presuming this is what all fans want. No one wants to see his or her club be relegated, clearly, however just how many would accept this for the final demand on the list? What if we changed it from having a good run to winning a cup?

It is a question no fan is comfortable talking about. Well, can we not just have both? It is the moment adults think like children at the ice cream parlor. What do you mean I have to pick only one?

Pick one.

One side they are content with. Everyone tells them just how important it is and, after all, if their club says its important then it surely is. Remember, just how loyal football fans can be.

Their club has no shot at winning the league but their fans feel they are important characters in, what they are told is, the greatest show in sports, the league everyone watches and if you are in it, how could you ever imagine not being apart of it?

The other option seems like a pipedream to most. They've watched for years the big teams dominate the cup competitions almost as much as the league and many fans now have no idea what it is like to win a cup.

This week MK Dons defeated Manchester United by a staggering 4-0 scoreline in the second round of the Capitol One Cup. Formerly known as Wimbledon, their victory brought back memories of the London club's famous FA Cup final win over Liverpool in 1988 at Wembley. It was an incredible shock that day and one we haven't seen repeated very often since.

In fact, there have been 56 major domestic Cup finals since (28 League Cup finals and 28 FA Cup finals) and only 11 teams outside the current top seven have won a cup.

Of the 'other 13' currently in the Premier League only Aston Villa, Leicester and Swansea's fans know what that feeling is like.

Half of the current Premier League teams have not won a cup since 1980. That is 34 years ago. Think about that for a moment.

Football fans 40 or under of half of the teams in the top flight have no idea what it is like to be in a stadium when their team wins a cup.

Is it any wonder, then, that these teams will regularly pick Premier League safety over Cup glory?

They have never come close to knowing what that feeling is like.

Yet, surely the greatest thing a fan of a team can ever experience is seeing them win something. It is the method that North American sports fans are hooked on to.

Since Wimbledon won the FA Cup in 1988, 14 different franchises have become Super Bowl winners, 15 different baseball teams have won the World Series and 15 different NHL clubs have lifted the Stanley Cup.

It is one of sport's great traits. Watching a team overcome obstacles and achieve something so difficult.

Yet, despite being told that cup football is a real lottery, the FA Cup have had only nine different winners in this time – each of one of the super seven plus Portsmouth and Wigan.

The League Cup has only moderately got a better success rate for the other teams and it is only going to get worse as the top flight teams treat it like a distraction.

A new season of cup football got underway this week for the Premier League teams and the same old mistakes were happening again.

West Ham were knocked out by Sheffield United of the third tier at home. They made nine changes to their starting XI from their last Premier League match.

Leicester got eliminated by Shrewsbury of the fourth tier at home. They made eight changes from their starting XI from their last Premier League match.

Another League Two side knocked out a Premier League side after QPR lost 1-0 after making eight changes from their starting XI at Tottenham on Sunday.

And then there is the case of Aston Villa. Paul Lambert made seven changes from the game against Newcastle on Saturday and lost 1-0 to League One side Leyton Orient at home.

Every man in charge of these clubs has said that cup competitions are important but they are not telling the truth. They are resting their best players in the third week of the season after they have just had three months off from competitive matches and then they have a ready made excuse when they lose.

Incredibly they are allowing their teams to play for the next nine months concentrating on the Premier League and the FA Cup and have thrown away the club's best chance at winning a trophy. Already. And for what? A supposedly better chance at staying in the Premier League?

No team's fan base will be more frustrated than Aston Villa. A club deeply rooted in its affection for cup competitions, Villa have now been knocked out of them by four teams from the lower leagues, Leyton Orient, Millwall, Bradford and Sheffield United, in the 26 months since the Scot was appointed manager. Yet he remains in charge.

Winners of the first ever League Cup and seven time FA Cup winners, Aston Villa are fully aware their days of being a super power are truly over but the cup competitions were different. Dreams of glory were realistic and Wembley visits put them were they felt they belonged. Any Villa fan in the stadium the day they beat Manchester United in the 1994 Coca-Cola Cup final will tell you what that felt like. They wouldn't have swapped if for a Premier League relegation. They would have swapped it for two. The Premier League? Where the club's loyal season ticket base has watched 15 wins from 58 home games in the last three years? Overrated.

Yet, that is the prospect ahead now for Villa this season. They are not alone, of course, but at the moment they are the poster boys for a club that has completely lost the pulse of its fan base. Having won two cups in the last 20 seasons many of their fans, at least, still know what has been taken away from them when they get knocked out.

For the rest their hopes of Premier League survival continue but what kind of fantasies are they? They are simply a hallucination blocking the dream of seeing their team win and the clubs are more than happy to contribute to the nightmare.

Louis Van Gaal (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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