League insists Cup is crucial to small clubs' survival

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The Independent Football

The Football League has claimed clubs from the lower divisions will fold if the Worthington Cup is stripped of its Uefa Cup place. The League believes there is a possibility of clubs in the Second and Third Divisions being unable to sustain professional football if the qualification for a place in Europe is handed to the Premiership instead of the winners of the cup competition.

The football body was responding to comments made by the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, who said he believed the club finishing sixth in the Premiership should be awarded the Uefa Cup place instead because that was the harder achievement.

John Nagle, the Football League's head of communications, said: "This is a far wider issue than whether it is harder to finish fifth or sixth in the Premier League or win the Worthington Cup. The fact is the Worthington Cup is the most important means of redistributing income left in the game.

"More than 60 per cent of the Football League's £105m-a-year television agreement is attributable to the Worthington Cup, therefore anything that damages it as a competition – such as stripping it of its Uefa Cup place – would have huge ramifications for clubs in Divisions One, Two and Three.

"Without the Worthington Cup, professional football in Divisions Two and Three would be unsustainable and the gap between the Premier League and First Division would become unbridgeable forever.

"But it is more important than just a mechanism for sharing wealth. The vast majority of Premier League clubs believe this competition should have a European place and with average crowds up in this competition by 12 per cent so far this season, it is clear that football supporters feel likewise."

Wenger was speaking after his side – mainly comprised of reserve players with some squad regulars – were beaten 4-0 at Blackburn in the quarter-finals of the Cup. The Arsenal manager said: "I would give one more place to the championship because it's more difficult to play in the championship. As long as there is a European place at stake we want to play in the competition. But if you ask me what my priority would be, I think it is much more difficult to finish fifth or sixth in the league.

"For me, it is very important to see some players at this level, and the fact there is a European place in this competition is the only other advantage I can see."

Under Uefa rules, the Uefa Cup place can go to the winners of a second cup – as well as the main cup competition – if it is requested by the national body, in this case the Football Association. Mike Lee, the communications director of the European governing body, said: "This is a matter for the English football authorities. Clearly if the FA wish to withdraw their request or put in another request we will not intervene."

The FA did not wish to comment but it is understood that it has no plans to change its backing for the Worthington Cup.

A weakened Arsenal side hardly managed a shot on target on Tuesday night. Matt Jansen's hat-trick settled matters in front of a half-full Ewood Park while Mark Hughes scored Blackburn's other goal. The Rovers manager, Graeme Souness, praised the Turkish midfielder Tugay Kerimoglu in particular, who showed a range of passing, skill and tackling that outshone anyone on the Arsenal side.

Souness also hopes Jansen can take confidence from his first hat-trick for the club and end what has been an unrewarding spell in front of goal. "I am pleased for Matt because all this time he has never allowed his head to drop and has worked very hard through his barren spell," said Souness, whose side are in Saturday's draw for the semi-finals.

"Hopefully he will gain a lot from this tonight – we will see against Newcastle on Saturday, which will be a tough game. But at no time has he let his enthusiasm drop, or his willingness to work for the team. All the headlines will be for his hat-trick, but I think we should also recognise that Tugay is a very special player. He's a delight to watch."

He added: "A big deal will be made about Arsenal playing only a second-string side but it's still full of good players."