Football: Graham sees no benefit in fielding below-par teams

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George Graham, the Leeds United manager, yesterday obliquely criticised Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger for their approach to the Coca-Cola Cup. Ian Parkes reports.

"When I enter a competition I set out to win it," George Graham, the Leeds manager, said yesterday, taking a sideways swipe at Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, his counterparts at Manchester United and Arsenal, for their approach to the Coca-Cola Cup.

Ferguson and Wenger have been criticised in some quarters for not fielding some of their best players in last night's third-round ties, with the Football League threatening the clubs with disciplinary action for fielding under-strength sides.

Graham, who takes his side to Stoke tonight, can, however, understand the motives of both. "There's no incentive of a qualifying place for Europe any more but we still take it seriously," he said.

"For Leeds, the Coca-Cola Cup is still an important competition. We've got to look at it positively. Winning becomes a habit and if we can do well in the Coca-Cola Cup, it will help boost our confidence all round. You only have to look at what happened to Leicester.

"Anyway, whenever I enter a competition I set out to win it. If we get through to the final stages and we get to Wembley, it's good for the club and good for the supporters. It gives everybody a lift."

Graham believes many of the top Premiership sides will pull out of the tournament altogether next season if there is still no Uefa Cup place available to the winner.

"If things stay the way are then it will definitely demean the competition," he said. "You will find that next year there may be a number of big clubs not taking part."

Graham takes a full-strength side to Stoke, with the exception of the striker Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, who starts a three-match ban following his sending off in the second round, second leg tie at Bristol City.

Football League officials have warned top clubs they face expulsion from the Coca-Cola Cup if they put out below-strength sides in this week's ties. A Football League spokesman, David Cookson, said: "We have unlimited powers to act. It includes expulsion with no right of appeal."

Arsenal offered refunds to any fans unhappy at watching a second-string side take on Birmingham in the Coca-Cola Cup at Highbury last night.

The club confirmed that "a couple" of disillusioned supporters had already been given their money back after complaining they did not want to watch the Gunners without their international players.

An Arsenal spokeswoman said: "We have had a couple of calls and we are telling anybody who has bought a ticket in advance that they can have a refund for it if they produce the ticket and stub before the match."

Harry Redknapp will field a below-strength side against Aston Villa tonight, but, unlike several other managers, it will not be out of choice. The number of injuries has given the West Ham manager no alternative.

"I want to put our best team out," Redknapp said. "But we have injuries you just can't do anything about. Ian Pearce is struggling, Iain Dowie is under treatment, Ludek Miklosko is out, Stan Lazaridis, John Moncur - the list is endless. I need to add to my squad. I've only got three forwards and one of them is out for six weeks. It's not right."

"And then Eyal Berkovitch goes and twists his ankle in the last minute of training this morning. I hear people criticising Gerry Francis about their training methods, but you can't do anything about people picking up injuries."

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