Sunday, 15 September 2013

Ashley Young not the Only Villain in Football's Theatre of Cheating

The new season is still in it's infancy and we have our first major diving controversy. It's like we've never been away. Manchester United's first home win under new manager David Moyes was marred by the actions of Ashley Young who was guilty of at least one diving offence during the game against Crystal Palace. Having been already been booked for 'simulation' during the first half, Young then controversially 'won' United a penalty after going down following a challenge by The Eagles' South African midfielder Kagisho Dikcagoi. Leaving aside the fact a penalty was an incorrect decision simply because the 'foul' took place outside the box, there are questions raised over whether it was even a foul at all. As we've established, Ashley Young had no issue trying to con the ref earlier in the same game and it was only a year or so back when he was being roundly condemned following two similar incidents against QPR and his former club Aston Villa.

Defence of such incidents usually has some former pro (9 out of 10 times, it's Michael Owen) incorrectly claiming that if the contact is there, a player is 'entitled to go down'. We also hear talk of 'inviting contact' and 'drawing fouls' to attempt blur the lines even further but this merely serves to ignore the obvious point that contact does not necessary mean an offence has been committed. Dikcagoi was clumsy and he did 'touch' Young but does that really constitute a foul? Call me an idealist but until the law is changed to outlaw any physical contact in the game, I don't really see how you can justify taking a tumble based on the slightest graze from an opposition player. Are you really 'entitled to go down' if no foul is actually committed? Even when an infringement is attempted, if a player is able to stay on his feet, there shouldn't really be an encouragement for him to do otherwise.

The fact that this is open to debate shows that the battle to rid the game of such behaviour is probably already lost. Diving seems, sadly, to be a part of the fabric of the game. Stan Collymore, one the more vocal former players, wasn't shy in putting forward this view when he tweeted the following in relation to Young:

I don't necessarily buy into the “good ol' days, when men were men” soundbites usually trotted out by those who don't understand that the game has moved on significantly since the days of knee-high tackles, pitches resembling First World War trenches and terrace racism. However, Collymore has a point about the 'badge of honour'. Standing up for yourself (literally and metaphorically) was something a player would pride himself on. Not now, it seems.

Unfortunately, his argument falls apart when he brings nationality in the equation. Stating that you specifically hate seeing English players cheat suggests that you are more concerned about taking the moral high ground rather than wanting to see the problem eradicated completely.

And while we're at it, it may seem absurd to show any sympathy towards Ashley Young but why should he be the only one singled out? It's almost impossible to imagine that he will be the only player involved in a diving debate this season.

It all contributes to the prevalent culture of cheating that exists in the game. Players seek an advantage wherever they can, both fairly or unfairly - be it incorrectly claiming corners/throw ins when the ball goes out of play or time wasting to run down the clock. We've all seen incidents where attacking players deliberately play the ball into the outstretched arms of defenders to win penalties. Is that actually any worse than diving to achieve the same outcome? Genuine question.

Perceived underhand tactics rarely receive prolonged widespread condemnation. At least not to a point where anyone is likely to do anything about it. David Moyes has claimed to have had a word with Young but then again, so did Sir Alex Ferguson previously. Teams are hardly dropping, fining or selling players for their misdemeanours. Cheating in football isn't punished sufficiently and while people believe they can get away with it, it will continue to take place. As Young (and others) knows, sometimes you get the breaks, other times not. If he wins his side 2 or 3 penalties a season, I'm sure he'd be prepared to take the odd yellow card too.

Ask the fans and they'll tell you it's wrong - but only when others do it. If it's their team, you can expect some of the most tenuous interpretations of the laws in order to justify their man doing the dirty. Taking this example, you'll have Liverpool fans slaughtering Young yet defending Suarez and United fans doing the same with the protagonists reversed. Worst of all, you get some fans attempting to explain away one of their players cheating by pointing out that "everyone else is at it". The hypocrisy is enough to make your head explode.

You even sometimes hear such behaviour described as 'clever'. When this is the accepted rhetoric used, it almost feels embarrassing to try and suggest that fairness and/or sportsmanship should even be considered. The win-at-all-costs mentality means that, sadly, these two unwanted guests have no place in the modern game. Dive on.

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Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Thank you, and Good Knight - Sir Alex Ferguson ruined my life

Saturday May 12th 1990. A hyperactive six year old child with a slightly oversized head is running around a Camden Town council flat. He has no plan, no aim, no real sense of what is going on. All he knows is that it's the weekend and he wants to go and knock for his mates so they could go enjoy the springtime sunshine in the communal play area. Said play area doesn't feature much. A swing, a slide, but also some walls which he and his pals would like to climb and jump from, showing flagrant disregard for their own safety and well being. For all his enthusiasm however, the child was still one to be easily distracted by other things, television being the main one. That big grey box of light in the living room would so often prove to be the draw that prevented him from indulging his desire to leave the house and hone in his playful instincts.

The young lad had more than likely been awake for some hours watching cartoons and children's programmes. While his poor mum was busy shopping/cooking/attending to her two year old daughter, the big headed boy would be planted in front of the box. Today, something strange was happening. BBC One seemed to be talking an awful lot about football. “How strange” the boy figured. “football matches are only ever televised on Sunday”. It didn't take long for him to deduce that it was the FA Cup Final. The boy was slightly confused. Just a few months earlier, he had sat down to watch Nottingham Forest beat Oldham to win 'the Cup' (after which, he decided that Forest were naturally the best team in the country...nay, the world!) so why was there another final so soon? “It must be a different cup. For rubbish teams” was the unwavering conclusion he drew.

The game would feature Crystal Palace. A side from from his very own city of London. A team of plucky heroes and underdogs who had defied the odds to make it to their first ever final. The television kept saying what an amazing achievement it would be if they were to beat their opponents, some fairly average team from the north called Manchester United who never really won much themselves in those days. Naturally, the boy was swayed and, on this day alone, would be cheering on this side affectionately referred to as the Eagles. Seeing as their opponents' nickname was the 'Red Devils', the boy knew his churchgoing mother would certainly not approve of him lending his support to them. They were the bad guys and as Ghostbusters and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had taught him, the bad guys always lose at the end.

Except, as we would soon discover, these bad guys didn't lose. Ever.

After a thrilling 3-3 draw, the game was set for a replay. The boy still hoped for a Palace win in the return game the following Thursday. However, as it was a school night, he wasn't allowed to stay up and watch it so the following morning when he discovered that a Lee Martin goal had settled the game in favour of 'The Devils', he was understandably, albeit temporarily disappointed (That was, of course, until something else grabbed his attention).

That was Sir Alex Ferguson's first trophy as manager of Manchester United. Even in my youthful naivety it made me somewhat miserable at the time. But it didn't matter. It was just one trophy. For a side without a particularly great recent record of success, I foolishly imagined people would barely even remember this isolated victory a year down the line. If you told me back then that I'd have to get used to it as the next 23 years of my life would be the same, I would have thought you were crazy and told everyone in school not to be your friend any more.

Curiously, such was Manchester United's level of mediocrity at the time, the accepted belief is that the United boss was on the brink of getting sacked and it was that cup win that saved his job. Appointed in 1986, the first four years of his tenure could only be described as bang average. A mid table side who would would only fleetingly flirt with with the top of the table before returning to irrelevance and obscurity. Ferguson's debut match was 2-0 league defeat to Oxford United which tells you all you need to know about the stature of the club at the time. Growing up in London back then you wouldn't have known many United fans. Nowadays, you are never more than six feet away from one. Like rats...

Going into 1990, there was actually a real risk of the Reds being drawn into a relegation battle. The club were on an awful run in the league having gone eight games without a win and an upcoming FA Cup 3rd round tie against the abovementioned Forest – one of the division's stronger sides – didn't look particularly enticing. As I say, it is widely believed that a loss would have seen Ferguson handed his P45. Something that would not have been an unpopular move. Three months before the Forest game, United actually lost 2-1 at home to Palace prompting one disgruntled fan to knock up a banner expressing his frustrations. Thankfully, Mark Robins popped up to score the only goal to give United a narrow win and buy Fergie some precious time. Had it not been for Robins, who knows what the future would have held for the club? Names touted to take over apparently included Terry Venables. Amazing, isn't it?

United finished the season in 13th place – a mere five points above the relegation zone and actually level on points with their cup final opponents. It's difficult to imagine Alex Ferguson would have kept his job but for the cup victory. Needless to say, it was all uphill from there. Sir Alex has since added four more FA Cup wins to his CV making him the most successful manager in the competition's history and United the most successful team with a grand total of 11 wins.

Two years later, Ferguson and United won the League Cup with a 1-0 victory over Nottingham Forest – the first in the club's long history and something he has gone on to repeat three more times. Only Brian Clough, the man he beat in 1992, has won as many as a manager.

However, the holy grail for United was, is and has always been the League. Sir Matt Busby was the last man to lead to club to championship success back in 1967 so their push in the final season of the old First Division had been a long time coming. Unfortunately for Ferguson, they were narrowly edged into second place by Leeds United.

The opportunity to win a first league title in 25 years that season was denied partly due to a late season 2-0 defeat against great rivals Liverpool. The Merseysiders themselves were at the end of a two decade run of unrivalled success which saw them rise and sit alone at the summit of the English game with 18 league titles. Well clear of Arsenal's 10 and United's 7. The history of hatred between the two clubs is extensive so it is fair to say, there would have been a fair bit of belly laughing and schadenfreude after derailing United's title bid.

Not to be deterred, the inaugural season of the Premier League in 1993 saw Ferguson, with the signing of Leeds' best player Eric Cantona, finally win that much sought after league crown and set the wheels in motion for a period of dominance that would eclipse that of the North West chums. Speaking in 2002, Ferguson unashamedly declared that his greatest challenge was “knocking Liverpool right off their fucking perch”. A motivation perhaps sparked by the fact that following that initial Premier League success, Liverpool fans, in keeping with the theme of unwisely unfurled banners, proudly suggested that Fergie's solitary title was somewhat insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

Like my 6 year old self, if only they knew what was to come...

We were sold the idea of the Premier League thinking it would open up competition, allowing different teams to grow, challenge and flourish in this new, all inclusive division. New money, new investment and an attractive new environment for players home and and abroad to thrive. “A whole new ball game” we were told. United winning the first title was actually a good thing as it gave hope to other success starved teams. “if they can do it, so can we” was the thinking. Unfortunately, the devious little Scot had other ideas. He was far from finished.

20 years and 12 more League titles later, Ferguson has not simply knocked Liverpool off their perch, he has single handedly burnt said perch to the ground. And it's not just the scousers. Everyone else in the country have been straining their necks to look over the fortress wall as Sir Alex sits in his throne, decorating himself more lavishly each passing year. None of this is by accident, though. Never afraid to let go, Ferguson has ruthlessly dismantled and rebuilt teams who have continuously remained at the forefront of the English game. Whenever it looked as though we may be thankfully seeing the end of their tyrannical reign, they would, in true super villian fashion, only came back stronger.

And it's not just domestically his presence has been felt. Following that initial FA Cup victory, two Mark Hughes goals in Rotterdam secured the European Cup Winners' Cup against Barcelona the following year. Eight years on, the Catalonian capital would be the scene of arguably Ferguson's greatest triumph. With a league title and FA Cup already in the bag, all that stood in the way of a historic treble was Bayern Munich. 1-0 down early on, Ferguson really earned his corn by throwing on substitutes Sheringham and Solskjaer late in the game and, well, you all know the story.

A nauseating outcome for the rest of us. Bitter accusations of good fortune and the whole thing being a “fluke” were levelled. But there was also the reluctant acknowledgement, as if there was any lingering doubt before, that we were seeing one of the greatest managers in the long history of the game. Despite the fact it was only United's second success in Europe's premier competition compared to Liverpool's four at the time, it was safe to assume there would be no goading banners at Anfield this time around.

Ferguson added another European crown in 2008 after beating Chelsea on penalties and has since reached two more finals – coming unstuck against brilliant Barcelona teams on both occasions, but firmly enshrining his place among the European elite.

However, despite the drive and determination that has brought him incomparable levels of success, there is an almost spiteful nature at its heart which fuels his pursuit of glory. For years, we've had to put up with the whining and complaining when things do not go his way. Referees, the media and even his own players have all felt his wrath at one time or another. The infamous 'hairdryer' iconology is a direct result of his unchallengeable approach to management, and this has even led to high profile fallings out within his own club. Many would point to his dispute with JP McManus and John Magnier leading to the deeply unpopular Glazer family running the club.

His general demeanour doesn't exactly endear him to the neutral. The desire to see United fail and concept of ABU (Anyone But United) can be attributed to primarily to Ferguson and the way he has gone about his business down the years. That said, this is what makes the man and if he didn't have this aspect of his character, he wouldn't have achieved everything he has done.

It was not simply the success which made him a great but the way in which he has responded to set backs and fought off challenges to his supremacy from a number of different foes. Like a boxer or character from a computer beat 'em up game, Ferguson has always had to adapt and refine his fighting style based on different opponents. From Kenny Dalglish and Blackburn, Kevin Keegan's Newcastle, Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, Mourinho at Chelsea, Bentiez's Liverpool and most recently, Mancini at City, the Scot has managed to rise to any challenge and leave them all in his wake. When Ferguson gets into a scrap, you can bet your life he is not walking away until he has won. In football terms, 'Sir' Alex is actually very much like a Knight of the more traditional sense; metaphorically galloping around the country on horseback laying waste to any perceived threat to his kingdom.

I refuse to believe that I am alone in having spent my entire football watching life sneering at his success but begrudgingly had to accept and acknowledge his unmatchable brilliance. The fact that many, many fans up and down the country are not able to gloat or even celebrate the retirement of the greatest manager they've ever seen but only express relief, is perhaps one of the biggest compliments that can be paid to the man.

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Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Paolo Di Canio - Football, Fascism and Forgetfulness

Football and all that surrounds it continues to baffle and confuse. So after much to-ing and fro-ing, Paolo Di Canio has come out and denied he is a fascist. Unless you've been living in a cave for the last few days, you might have heard that the Italian has been appointed as manager of Sunderland. A struggling top flight side replacing their boss as they slip perilously close to the relegation zone would normally only cause some mild speculation as to whether he is capable of doing the job, some praise/scrutiny of his previous role and then everyone would go about their business. That is, until the day he either takes them down or keeps them up – prompting various commentators to tell you that they predicted it would turn out this way.

This time around, things are different. Paolo popping up in the north east has caused uproar and indignation the likes of which is rarely seen in the game. As a player, Di Canio excited crowds with his skill, shocked the world with one of the worst, yet absolutely hilarious, acts of indiscipline ever seen on a football pitch and scored wonderful goals time and time again. Capable of petulance and almost unheard of sportsmanship, for better or for worse, he was someone who knew how to make a headline and It would seem little has changed since swapping the pitch for the dugout. To simply say his 21 month spell in charge of Swindon Town was eventful would be bordering on a criminal understating of matters. Fighting his own players, over-exuberant celebrations and outspokenness were just part of the daily routine at The County Ground. Even after his controversial departure he still managed to cause controversy by going back and raiding the club at the dead of night for his belongings. If anyone ever had the idea to write a sitcom or movie based on a player, a lot of the source material would come from the career of this man.

However, it's not all pushing refs and kicks up the backside. As has been well documented, the former fiery Sheffield Wednesday, West Ham and Charlton hero caused something of a stir back in 2005 while playing from his hometown club Lazio when he was pictured giving straight-arm fascist salute following a match against fierce rivals Roma – the third time he'd done so after returning to Italy. Defending his actions, Di Canio apparently clarified his position when he was quoted by an Italian news agency saying that he was indeed a fascist, “but not a racist”.

It then also emerged that Di Canio made comments which appeared to endorse a certain Benito Mussolini, describing the dictator as ‘principled’ and ‘misunderstood’. He even went so far as to reinforce his admiration for Mussolini by adorning his body with a tattoo reading ‘DUX’ – a Latin translation of the ‘il Duce’ (The Leader) title bestowed onto the late Italian ruler.

Shocking revelations that have understandably caused the heated negative reaction to his installment at Sunderland. Fascism is difficult, if not impossible to define as an ideology with no universal position agreed on what it actually constitutes. In Di Canio’s native Italy, it was seen as a political position leaning very much to the far right and founded on extreme nationalism. The Italian Fascist regime of the early 1900s encompassed a number of different beliefs and ideas including but not exclusive to taking a controversial stance on race and anti-semitism.

In an era where there appears to be an effort to try and rid the game of the discrimination that continues to blight the sport as whole, condemnation has been heaped on both man and club. How can we look to continue the fight against racism, sexism and homophobia when a team will happily take on someone for whom it was believed held such beliefs?

Mussolini’s National Fascist Party also stood shoulder to shoulder with Adolf Hitler’s Nationalist Socialist German Worker’s Party and adopted many of the same Nazi policies ahead of the Second World War. To this end, Paolo's previous attempts trying to divorce fascism from racism would be quite difficult.

For the sake of balance, the pertinent question to ask is whether one can in fact be a fascist without being a racist. On a most basic level, the two can be distinguished from one another. If for no other reason, this controversy might cause one or two people to actually pick up a book and discover that there is actually a difference. Perhaps this distinction is highlighted by a particular extract from Di Canio’s book which has come to light where he discusses immigration in his home country:

“In Italy, too many immigrants come over and act as if they were back in their own countries. They make little effort to fit in and to be fair, we Italians do little to integrate them.

Our government does little for immigrants, so they do things their way. If we’re not careful, in ten years’ time Italy will be a Muslim country. I have nothing against Muslims, but I don’t want my Italian culture to disappear. If immigrants come to Italy and want to be part of Italian culture, want to be Italian, that’s great. I don’t care if they are black, yellow, pink or green. I would love it if an immigrant could come to Italy and after a few years say, ‘This is my country. I am Italian’”

A sensitive issue unquestionably but not necessarily an opinion reserved for The Blackshirts. One is free to make his or her own judgements but it is important to note that these comments aren’t even nearly as extreme as some of the anti-immigration rhetoric printed in the British tabloid press on a daily basis. We also live in a country where the popularity of UKIP is on the rise and the relationship with Muslims, as well as people from Eastern Europe, is hardly the most amicable.

Di Canio and Sunderland have gone to great lengths to defend themselves and attempted to dismiss any accusations of prejudice and political leanings in any direction. Despite these denials, the stance taken by sections of the media and fans alike to criticise him was still a commendable one… if only it wasn’t too little, too late.

Di Canio's comments about Mussolini were made in his autobiography which was published in 2000 – while he was still playing for West Ham and would go on to play in England for four more years. In isolation, a Premier League club hiring a self-confessed fascist today is of course headline news. People have been bending over backwards to have their say since he arrived on Wearside a few days ago but one must ask why people are only vocalising their dissatisfaction some 13 years after his initial admission of his position.

In addition, Paolo Di Canio had already been managing on these shores for nearly two years, in which time he wrote a column on the BBC Sport website and successfully won promotion with Swindon Town from Leagues Two to One just last season. Where were the voices of dissent were while Di Canio was busy plying his trade in Wilshire? Aside from the GMB Union withdrawing its support of the club in protest, Di Canio’s alleged political stance barely made a ripple. Instead, it was his 'wackiness' and eccentricities that dominated the headlines.

The kind of scrutiny and incessant questioning he has faced after it was announced he would be replacing Martin O’Neill at The Stadium of Light seems almost irrelevant. The time for all this was back in 2011 (or earlier!). From a cynical perspective, it's not hard to suspect that the hand-wringing is agenda driven. Simply in place to protect the ‘image’ of English football’s top division rather than any crusade against fascism. Believe what you want and behave as you wish in the lower leagues, just don’t bring it to the Premier League. We have shirts to sell.

Even after this latest not-so-swift denial from the Italian, there's just no escaping the fact that discrimination is still a hot topic after what has been a turbulent couple of years with more high profile racist incidents seeming to take place at alarming regularity. By all means, challenge Di Canio over his perceived beliefs but should he really be the prime target right now? This story, while it lasted, conveniently managed to push aside the continued controversy surrounding Rio Ferdinand. While everybody was focused on events at Sunderland, it almost went unnoticed that in Monday’s FA Cup quarter final, the Manchester United defender once again faced a hostile reception from Chelsea fans at Stamford Bridge as the ongoing saga over John Terry racially abusing brother Anton refuses to die. That's not to say the Chelsea chants were explicitly racist but you'll have to go some way to convincing me that “you know what you are” doesn't have specific implications given the circumstances and events that preceded it.

This comes off the back of England fans chanting similar and being reported by FARE for alleged racism against the same player the previous weekend in San Marino following Ferdinand's controversial withdrawal from the squad.

When incidents like this have taken place on the elsewhere – most recently, in Serbia – pundits and observers were shrieking themselves hoarse that these other countries are somehow 'backward' and need to be banned from football and such like. What is actually more worrying than the fact English football fans have been accused of similar behaviour, is the silence of these same people shouting from the rooftops to condemn others. I'm yet to see one journalist suggest England should be docked points or play matches behind closed doors if found guilty.

Instead, what you get is the oft-trotted out stock claims that “things aren’t as bad as the 70s” and that “we've come a long way since then”. True as this may be, there's no reason to pat ourselves on the back and say everything is ok. It may take place much less often but anyone who would claim we don't still have our own problems is a liar. You only need to look to the anti-Semitic chanting when West Ham traveled to Tottenham earlier this season to name but one example.

Then of course, there was the Terry case which, along with that of Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra, almost felt as though it set race relations back thirty years given the way certain people conducted themselves. The manner in which Liverpool Football Club acted was nothing short of disgraceful while the less said about the behaviour of certain Chelsea fans the better. The way the purported victims, Evra and Anton Ferdinand, ended up being demonised, causes one to wonder if some players would even bother reporting any discrimination now. It hardly seems worth it. Especially given how quick the narrative changes even when players are found guilty. Suarez is currently being talked up as a potential player of the year. The Evra incident is barely even mentioned.

Similarly, in a perverse way, Paolo Di Canio doesn't actually need to worry about the lasting effects to his reputation. His politics were almost a non-issue when he was winning the League Two title and they will be once again if he keeps Sunderland in the Premier League and performs well next season – even without his denial. That is the kind of short termism that exists in football. It's difficult to combat problems when views and opinions change with each passing game. There’s an uncomfortable sense of misguided moralising with the this story in the sense it feels as though we are only discussing it because it's convenient rather than because it's important.

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Saturday, 12 January 2013

League Cup seeks to profit from Capital gains

Since their brief stint dining at English football's top table at the turn of the century, Bradford City have hardly been at the forefront of the average football fans' mind. A series of relegations and some much publicised financial troubles were the sum total of what most football fans knew of the goings on at Valley Parade. That has all changed. After the incredible 3-1 victory over Aston Villa in the Capital One Cup semi final first leg, the Bantams are just 90 minutes from a historic Wembley final. Avoiding a two goal defeat away from home against their supposedly more illustrious opponents in two weeks is all that stands in their way. Given how poor Paul Lambert's team have performed this season, it may not prove to be the most difficult task.

The first leg of the second semi saw Swansea City beat Rafa Benitez' Chelsea 2-0 in their own backyard. Since almost falling out of the football league completely ten years ago, the Swans' meteoric rise and progress has been astonishing. Currently sitting comfortable in the top half of the Premier League table, Swansea had already won at Anfield and the Emirates this season before this week's victory at the home of the current European champions. Like Bradford, avoiding a two goal defeat when they welcome the disharmonious Blues to Wales could mean a final between two sides who last faced each other in League One just five years ago. It may not be the 'glamour' tie but I will take the liberty of speaking for most “neutrals” when I say it will be one we would all rather see. The 'people's' final if you will.

Over the years, the Football League Cup has become English football's abandoned child. The black sheep. The unwanted guest at dinner that nobody invited. With it's bad breath and inappropriate comments about your wife, many of us are left to wonder why it's name is still always on the invitation list. What was once a respected and highly sought after piece of silverwear on these shores is now nothing more than an inconvenience. Arsene Wenger's candid, open admission that he regards the competition as low down as fifth on his list of priorities each season may have drawn criticism from fans and sections of the media alike but it's hardly a dramatic revelation. For years, the Frenchman has used the competition to blood younger and fringe members of his squad choosing to rest senior players for Premier League and Champions League matches. He's not alone, either. It's one of football's most open of secrets that the Arsenal manager is not the only person to feel this way about the competition. You'd be hard pressed to find a top club who will play a full strength side in the League Cup – at least not until the latter rounds. Weakened teams are often sent out as first teamers put their feet up at home and are not to be troubled by such trivialities. Certainly not with League titles and Champions League places to chase. The reticence is not even exclusive to the upper echelon as teams anticipating a relegation battle or even lower division sides aiming for promotion refuse to risk key players when they have, in their eyes, bigger fish to fry. This then leads to an increased feeling of apathy from fans. If the clubs don't give a toss about this grotesque, ugly, three handled (?) trophy, then why should I waste my time?

Part of what fosters this overall dismissive attitude is the feeling that the competition has lost any identity it may have once had. Cynicism is heightened by the fact it appears to be nothing more than the corporate whore of the football world. Of course, these days, sponsorship and football go hand in hand but the constant renaming of this particular competition has caused its credibility to diminish at a rapid rate. It is a little over 30 years since sponsorship from the now defunct Milk Marketing Board meant that for five years teams were competing for the Milk Cup. Following that, we had the Littlewoods Cup, the Rumbelows Cup, and the Coca Cola Cup. Then 1998 provided the watershed moment as perhaps fatally, the brewing company Worthington attached it's name to the tournament. At a time when English clubs were starting to reap the benefits of Murdoch's millions and taking significant strides in Europe, somewhat less importance was attached to domestic trophies. The Worthington Cup, quite inevitably, was soon amusingly but cruelly rechristened by fans as the 'Worthless' Cup – a blow from which it never really recovered. Despite becoming the Carling Cup and now this season, the Capital One Cup, there doesn't seem to be any real affection towards it. For all the name changes, there is one that sticks. Curiously, one that wasn't the result of sponsorship – although, Disney could have made a killing if they received any money every time a fan of a club exiting the competition uttered the immortal, yet disparaging words “it's only the Micky Mouse Cup”.

However, this season, interest in the much maligned competition has piqued somewhat. Due in part to the fact that understrength teams and dare I say, a lack of full commitment from some teams, has led to some truly entertaining matches and utterly bizarre results. The fact that a current fourth tier side could be in the final is remarkable enough but is quite frankly in keeping with what has been a weird and wacky tournament from the very start. Way back in August's first round, Derby County's match at home to Scunthorpe saw the Rams contrive to draw 5-5 despite leading the match 5-3 going into stoppage time after 90 minutes. Inevitably losing the subsequent penalty shootout. An otherwise ridiculous scenario that merely set the tone for later rounds. Round Two might well be best remembered for Nottingham Forest and Wigan competing in their own goal of the month competition but when Bradford scored two goals in the last 5 minutes to win away at Watford, I doubt many people would have even bat an eyelid. If only they knew...

The Premier League's European participants joined the competition in round three but as Arsenal and Chelsea were hitting Coventry and Wolves for 6, the big story came at the home of newly crowned champions Manchester City who twice surrendered leads to end up losing 4-2 to a poor and unfancied Aston Villa.

The Fourth round is when things really started to kick off. On any other night, Bradford City would have made all the headlines following their penalty heroics at Wigan but the events at the Madejeski put their shootout win so far in the shade it almost went unnoticed. Reading hosted Arsenal and thanks to some of the most comical defending and goalkeeping you will ever see, ludicrously found themselves 4-0 up as they approached half time. Theo Walcott's consolation before the break looked to be just that. However, as he scored his second to make it 4-4 in the 5th minute of stoppage time, many of us wondered what the hell we had just witnessed. As Marouane Chamakh lobbed Adam Federici to make it 7-5 to Arsenal at the end of extra time, nothing was making any sense anymore.

Not to be outdone, 24 hours later, Manchester United sent a young team to Chelsea and looked to be heading through as they led 3-2 deep into the dying embers of stoppage time. That was until Scott Wootton, who curiously hasn't been seen since, gave away a 94th minute penalty. Chelsea turned the screw in extra time but the eventual 5-4 scoreline told a story almost as mad as the events in Berkshire the previous evening. Swansea's impressive 3-1 win at Anfield and Norwich's stunning late comeback to score two in the last 5 minutes to beat Spurs 2-1 were both an afterthought on the night.

Bradford's win over Wigan happened to be their seventh successive penalty shootout victory. After beating Northampton by the same method in the FA Cup first round, they went on to make it nine in a row in the League Cup Quarters. A truly memorable night at Valley Parade saw them knock out a near enough full strength Arsenalteam in an upset that will be remembered for years to come. Having led for much of the game, the Bantams looked to be heartbroken as Thomas Vermaelen equalised with just a few short minutes left of normal time. But the Belgian turned from hero to villain as his decisive spot kick cannoned off the post to send one half of West Yorkshire into rapture. Things weren't so great for the other half as, despite leading 1-0 at half time, Leeds were dispatched 5-1 by a merciless Chelsea side to join Swansea, Villa and the abovementioned Bradford in the final four.

As if learning absolutely nothing from the tournament so far, many people expected Chelsea and Villa to put an end to all the nonsense and navigate their way into the final. However, after this week's first leg shocks, you'd have been a foolish man to take that as given. Instead, we find ourselves on the brink of a Swansea v Bradford final that nobody would have predicted when the balls first came out of the bag in the summer. Yet, despite their advantages going into their respective second legs, one still doesn't know what else to expect from this season's madcap competition. If either or both of Chelsea and Villa were to pull off a comeback and make it through to the final, it would simply be in keeping with the unpredictability this competition has thrown up thus far. However much people want to dismiss the League Cup as a lower priority, there can be no denying the drama it has provided this season – something that looks to continue right to the bitter end on February 24th. The “magic of the cup” is a line that is routinely trotted out every time something vaguely surprising happens in the FA Cup. This year, perhaps the magic has found it's way over to England's 'other' domestic cup competition.

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