Nick Townsend: Rafa declines a drink from Cup of tradition

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There may be a more damning legacy for Benitez - how his Turf Moor policy is regarded by Steven Gerrard

There may be a more damning legacy for Benitez - how his Turf Moor policy is regarded by Steven Gerrard

It has been a week when no amount of whipped Devon cream could enhance the taste of a large slice of Cherries tart. Just when the adventures of Alex Inglethorpe's Exeter City team permitted us the belief that we could once again start buffing up that FAmous trophy, as BSkyB like to trail their coverage of that Cup which has been so desecrated in recent years, Rafael Benitez has succeeded in trashing it.

Exeter have profited by around £750,000 from Manchester United's unwitting generosity at Old Trafford, res-ulting in Wednesday's compelling replay. The club are reborn, their enterprising young manager surely destined for higher things. Liverpool's benevolence at Turf Moor means Bournemouth are £250,000 poorer than the Cherries might have been had Benitez not approached the world's most revered knockout tournament with what he would regard as pragmatism, but the rest of us will perceive as contempt.

When, down the years, you have seen them come clacking out of the velvet bag, and witnessed them go out - the Farnboroughs, Aldershots, Newports (Isle of Wight), Aylesburys, Canvey Islands, Exeters, Enfields and Forest Greens - albeit afterherculean resistance, you are apt to be over-sentimental, not to say over-protective, about the FA Cup's stature. But while it continues to connect the illustrious names with those in penury, the tournament remains, in the view of this observer, a crucial feature of the game's rich tapestry, a reminder to the all-powerful of the structure which supports their existence.

Unless the élite - those who tend to actually lift the damned thing - view the FA Cup with the gravitas of those who languish umpteen places, whole divisions, below in the pyramid, the whole exercise is devalued. Liverpool, by fielding the team they did against Burnley, could not claim, by any estimation, to have approached the competition with the respect the lesser clubs deserve. They have not been alone in an era during which the FA's approval of Manchester United going into abeyance from the competition in 2000 was a wanton dereliction of duty to their clubs and supporters.

But it is Benitez who is in the dock. There were days when the Liverpool manager's action would have been regarded as a heinous affront to the game's ethics. Today, it is accepted without apparent demur from those who run the game, their attention focused instead on a temporary truce in the pizza wars.

One can fully comprehend that anguished wail of Dorset pique. In the same week that Liverpool lay out, for them, a modest £1m on Leeds's talented young goalkeeper Scott Carson, Bourne-mouth's whole existence remains in jeopardy, with the tax man demanding £300,000. The latter is not Liverpool's responsibility, of course, but the timing is unfortunate. Yet one suspects there may be a rather more damning legacy for the Liverpool manager of his decision to deploy largely a reserve team at Turf Moor - how it is regarded by Steven Gerrard.

Those managers who survey the Liverpool captain and England midfielder jealously will have been encouraged by Liverpool's elimination from one tournament which could conceivably have yielded the kind of trophy that may convince Gerrard his long-term future rests on Merseyside. One of several perverse observations last week came from Benitez. "We don't have the squad to play in four competitions at the top level."

The reality is actually this: Liverpool have one remaining Carling Cup game against Watford, followed by a final appearance or elimination. They have a League programme of 14 games remaining after yesterday, and have to make up seven points on Everton to claim a Champions' League place next season. They have a European challenge, which may last a further two, possibly four, games. That total is scarcely an onerous task for a club boasting the prowess of Liverpool, even allowing for injuries.

Successful pot-hunting is not necessarily productive. If ever a man was damned with the faintest of commendation for his efforts it was Gérard Houllier's season of three trophies. Nevertheless, they buy time at a club fuelled by expectancy borne of distinguished traditions. Victory over Burnley, with Bournemouth awaiting, would virtually have assured Liverpool a fifth-round prize - only three games away from the final.

While the FA apparently condone Liverpool's disregard of a prestigious product, the FA's chairman, Geoff Thompson, together with Sports Minister Richard Caborn, Premier League chief Richard Scudamore and even, for heaven's sake, the police, have been crawling all over the Case of the Recalcitrant Couple, Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger. Can anyone explain why?

As my witness for common sense, Gary Lineker maintains: "We shouldn't take football too seriously, and the FA would actually be doing a disservice to the fans if they tried to gag Arsène and Sir Alex. The whole feud is funny and entertaining." No wonder the pair in question have, if you read between the lines, been disinclined to indulge the pompous figures of football and beyond.

One almost expects pious nonsense from the sports politicians. But it is almost beyond belief that Cdr Barry Norman of Islington Police feels compelled to enlighten us with his observations, to the effect that their dispute could incite trouble among fans at Highbury on Tuesday week, when Arsenal and Manchester United meet in the Premiership.

Leaving aside the fact that Highbury, whose epithet is "The Library", has never been a hotbed of hostility, the only likely result of these managerial grouches' pronouncements will be the heaving of laughing bellies. Football followers, rightly or wrongly, are riled by players and managers they regard as traitors, not by this Punch & Judy show in which the game's two most successful figures have rendered themselves faintly ridiculous.

If they have committed a crime, who is the victim? Football's reputation, do we hear? Well, scarcely, in a week when one of our leading clubs have removed the sheen on a competition beloved by many in this country, and admired from afar.

Living the dream again?

Just when we thought it was safe again to wade into relatively benign waters of football chairmanship, that old rascal surfaces like the not-quite-deceased body in a horror movie. He may be 73, but there is still a breath or two of demon-like desire for success within Ken Bates. Many will view the second coming of a man whose name is a byword for charm shot through by irascibility and irritability with ambivalence; not least those who remain at Leeds after a decline of an empire unprecedented in English football.

In his declaration of intent, almost Ridsdalian in its proportions, he speaks of "winning promotion in the next couple of seasons, establishing ourselves in the Premiership, getting a top-six place and going back into Europe". So far he has been reassuring where Kevin Blackwell and Co are concerned. The manager would be wise to recall, however, that "Whitebeard" dispatched some majestic names in his latter years at Stamford Bridge: notably, Glenn Hoddle, Ruud Gullit, and Gianluca Vialli. And patience tends not to be one of the great virtues of a septuagenarian.

For Leeds followers, his arrival should be viewed, as the lady in blue was wont to enthuse in other circumstances, as an occasion to rejoice. For the rest of us, it will be fascinating finding out.

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