Football: United reaffirm Cup withdrawal

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MANCHESTER UNITED are adamant that they will not play in the FA Cup despite the criticism they have received from Kate Hoey, the new Sports Minister.

United withdrew from the competition to take part in the Fifa-organised World Club Championship in Brazil in January. But Hoey, who succeeded Tony Banks, insisted that it was "imperative" that United defend the trophy they won as part of the treble last season.

However, Martin Edwards, the Manchester United chief executive, insists that the decision will not be changed. "We won't be having a re-think. We made the decision weeks ago and that decision stands," Edwards said.

Hoey nailed her colours to the mast in her first comments as the new Sports Minister by criticising United's decision, Banks and the Football Association. "I think it is absolutely imperative that Manchester United play in the FA Cup," Hoey said. "I would not have felt it is the role of the Minister for Sport to be asking Manchester United to go to Brazil. A number of errors were made.

"The people I really criticise are the FA. The FA can still put matters right by saying to Manchester United they must play in the FA Cup. I say to Manchester United, you owe the country a duty to find a way of defending the FA Cup."

The FA's response has been to ask Hoey for a solution to United's dilemma. "We remain open-minded as to the solution," Steve Double, an FA spokesman, said. "However, what is important, above all, is that somebody must present a viable solution. We appreciate that there has been a national debate about the subject but what is required to move things on is the offer of effective solutions. That is what we need.

"Our stance has always been that we are open-minded on it. United have stated publicly that they do not want to enter a weakened team in the Cup."

But Double added that despite Hoey's criticism of the FA, the English game's governing body would not find themselves in a difficult position over the tournament in South America. "No, we talk to people and we look forward to giving her a full briefing on all the circumstances," Double said. "We are looking forward to having an early meeting with Kate Hoey to explain all the various complexities which surround the issue."

AXA, the FA Cup sponsors, have welcomed Hoey's comments and believe they could act as a catalyst for United returning to the competition.

"It certainly increases the pressure and re-activates the debate on the whole subject and it would be nice to get the matter concluded sooner rather then later," Phil Hickley, an AXA spokesman, said. "We are obviously delighted that she is taking an active interest in the FA Cup.

"There is still hope that a satisfactory agreement for all parties can be found and a solution which is acceptable to Manchester United. We certainly haven't lost hope that United have gone from this year's competition."

Meanwhile, the Football Supporters' Association have given a warm reception to the appointment of Hoey and particularly, her stance on the FA Cup. Kevin Miles, a national committee member, is optimistic for the future of the game. "She was a member of the Football Supporters' Association and she has always been very supportive of the FSA," Miles said.

"The comments that she has made about Manchester United and the FA Cup are in tune with the fears about the FA Cup from the majority of football fans we have spoken to. So we welcome her statements on this issue and we look forward to working with her. But she has a challenging situation ahead.

"She seems to be distancing herself from the view the FA are taking on the FA Cup. The FA told us that their stance was 'United must go to Brazil and let's see if we can get them in the FA Cup as well'. "Whereas most fans think it should be the other way round.