Brian Viner: Romance is dead as Cup cartel takes over

Not since 1872 has a 12-year period passed when so few different clubs won the Cup
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The Independent Football

You can pull the roof over the stadium, but not the wool over our eyes. For all the talk about the FA Cup final being reinvigorated by the presence of Southampton (who must be getting a mite fed up with being talked about as if they were Dagenham & Redbridge), the venerable competition is desperately in need of a new name on the trophy - a name other than that of Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool or Chelsea. And if it does not happen soon (i.e. next May) then I for one will find something more exciting to do on Cup final afternoon, like emptying the vacuum cleaner.

I hate to bang on about this – which is to say, I rather like banging on about this – but the four above-named clubs have now won the Cup in 11 of the last 12 years. Which is no criticism of them, of course, rather a criticism of the way in which the advent of the Premiership, the Champions' League and television money has disastrously contracted the group of clubs able to lift major domestic trophies.

A reader last week sent an e-mail eloquently disagreeing with this point of view, saying that the League and FA Cup have in every decade been dominated by an élite group, that all that has changed is the identity of clubs within that élite. Nothing is new, he averred, under the sun. Or under the roof, as the case may be.

There is some truth in that, but only some. Not since Wanderers pipped Royal Engineers in 1872 has a 12-year period passed in which so few different clubs have won the FA Cup, in fact it is hard to read the Rothman's Football Yearbook and not pine for the past.

From 1920 to 1932, for example, the Cup was won by Aston Villa, Tottenham, Huddersfield Town, Bolton Wanderers (three times), Newcastle United (twice), Sheffield United, Cardiff City, Blackburn Rovers and West Bromwich Albion. Even from 1980 to 1992, seven clubs triumphed – West Ham, Tottenham, Manchester United, Everton, Liverpool , Coventry and Wimbledon.

Still, pining for the past, while a nice way of filling a column, is ultimately a pointless exercise. My esteemed colleague Ken Jones, always a must-read, is fond of skewering those he refers to as his "younger brethren in this trade" for their tendency to gaze myopically at history, but when a benign contemplation of the past leads to a cynical dissatisfaction with the present it is probably best avoided. Sport, like politics, art and, a personal bugbear, the diminished jamminess of a Jammie Dodger, is what it is.

And so to my reflections on this English football season, all over bar a lot of shouting in the play-off finals. Here are three firmly-held convictions that I did not hold as firmly or even at all last August, but which the ensuing nine months or so have cemented.

Sir Alex Ferguson is the greatest British club manager of all time.

This would be less contentious if the Manchester United manager were more likeable, but if he were more likeable he would be less great. I take on board the claims of Matt Busby, Jock Stein, Brian Clough, Bill Shankly and especially Bob Paisley to be hailed as the greatest ever. To say nothing of the oft-overlooked Gordon Lee.

But Paisley, who comes closest, inherited from Shankly a winning side and a fantastic Anfield infrastructure. Ferguson's inheritance at United was considerably less promising. And unlike all the above except Clough, he has propelled two clubs to remarkable success. In fact his achievements with Aberdeen, breaking the Old Firm duopoly and beating Real Madrid, of all teams, in a European final, are arguably just as impressive as what he has pulled off with United.

Gérard Houllier is the most over-rated manager in the Premiership.

Many Liverpool fans don't believe me, and some Everton fans disown me, when I say that my love for the Blues has never involved a concomitant hatred of the Reds. In fact, I don't know whether there is a campaign to have Bob Paisley posthumously knighted, or even whether Buck House does that sort of thing, but I'd be happy to start one.

This season, however, I have taken a lot of pleasure in Liverpool's reverses. Houllier has spent like Midas but shopped at Argos. His most exciting players are those he inherited, and even with them his sides consistently played the most unenthralling football I have ever seen from Liverpool. And I'm not jumping on an anti-Houllier bandwagon; I was on board when it started rolling. When Liverpool were riding high in the Premiership, I offered to dye my hair red if they won the title. Many Liverpool fans e-mailed to say they would personally buy the dye. Now that Houllier has failed even to get the club into the Champions' League, they should do the honourable thing and dye their hair blue.

David Moyes is the next Alex Ferguson.

Of the six greatest British managers listed above (leaving out Gordon Lee just for now), four are or were Scottish. I don't what they do with the water up there. Actually, I do. They turn it into Glenfiddich. Whatever, Moyes has all it takes to join the greats. My worry is that it will happen at Old Trafford, not Goodison Park.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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