Hard road to final frontier

It is 16 years now since the FA Cup winners came from outside the top tier. Can the Endsleigh find a way to Wembley?; Ian Ridley fears a greater divide in the divisions will have Cup repercussions
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WITH its finger on the pulse as well as the funny bone, BBC2's Fantasy Football League show featured a sketch entitled "Saint and Greavsie talk about the Endsleigh League as if it's important". As if to mirror its subject, the skit now seems to have been cut.

All within the game agree that the division between the old Football League and the now autonomous and enormous Premiership is widening each season with resources more concentrated than ever. As cup competitions unravel, this may seem the time of year when the lower divisions reassert themselves. But are we seeing merely defiant gestures? Can a First Div-ision club, in this moneyed day and age, win a cup, if not the Cup?

Clearly the Endsleigh does still matter. A recent visit to Hereford reminded this Premiership regular of an often more welcoming and civilised world. And on a night of live satellite television coverage of an FA Cup replay, more than 20,000 people packed into Ashton Gate in midweek for a Bristol derby between two teams at the wrong end of the Second Division. The fact that such an attendance caused ticketing chaos did illustrate a credibility gap.

Clearly, too, there is life in the old bulldog yet as Ipswich and Sheffield United demonstrated with FA Cup replay wins over Premiership opposition, Blackburn Rovers and Arsenal respectively. Perhaps Arsenal should have eschewed the executive coach and travelled by train. They might then have heeded the warning to mind the gap.

In 11 third-round contests between them, though, eight Premiership teams eventually prevailed over First Division opposition. Overall, only nine First Division sides will survive into the fourth round; next Saturday, three of them - Reading, Grimsby and Wolverhampton - face Premiership teams in Manchester United, West Ham and Tottenham.

It is 16 years now since the FA Cup winners came from outside the top level. West Ham's defeat of Arsenal ended a decade that also saw Sunderland and Southampton lift the trophy as then Second Division clubs. In addition, Fulham reached the final and Queen's Park Rangers would also in 1982 in an unprecedented period, one also unlikely to be repeated in two-tier time.

Trevor Brooking, the man who scored West Ham's winning goal in 1980, points to a reason why. "The gulf in wages for players is now massive," he said. "In those days it was not so great. We had been relegated the season before but the club could afford to hold on to the players. People like Phil Parkes, Ray Stewart, myself, Billy Bonds and Paul Goddard might not have been content to stay on these days. Clubs who go out of the Premiership, like Crystal Palace, often become selling clubs."

Figures, although they can fluctutate wildly even within divisions, confirm the chasm. The Professional Footballers' Association report that in the Premier, within a wage structure spanning pounds 2,000 a week to pounds 20,000, an average is probably pounds 3,500. In the First Division it is likely to be nearer pounds 1,500 (pounds 700 in the Second and pounds 400 in the Third).

Consequently, players are often content to be part of a Premiership squad rather than First Division team. And given more injuries and suspensions these days, larger squads are required. It is a reason cited by Alan Curbishley, manager of the bright young Charlton team who were first in the Cup this season to oust a Premier side when they beat Sheffield Wednesday 2-0.

"Two seasons ago we were one of four Endsleigh teams in the quart- er-finals but at that time of the season when you get to the final stages, size of squad does come into play." Malcolm Crosby, manager of then Second Division Sunderland when they reached the final in the last season before the Premier League was formed and now assistant at Oxford United, added: "Wages do have a lot to do with it but the transfer fees are the real stumbling block."

Mostly for strikers. All agree that quality of finishing is the big difference between the divisions. Though Crosby does not see too much difference in overall quality between the bottom six in the Premier and the top six in the First, Brooking believes that few of the former would want to swap strikers with the latter. "You have to score goals in the Premiership," he said."The teams struggling are those not scoring goals. Premier strikers are always likely to score against First Division defences with that little bit of extra space and more mistakes being made. In the Premier, you don't score as many from other players' failings, which is why those stepping up take time to find their feet, if they ever do."

So who could blame the Endsleigh for wanting a larger slice of the pie and accepting Sky TV's deal, especially given ITV's feeble football coverage of late, which reached its nadir with the Arsenal v Newcastle Coca-Cola Cup tie? The pounds 125m over five years sounds a fortune but at about pounds 1m per season to First Division clubs it is not. It is more Sky's ability to give air time to its depth of coverage, fuelling interest and stimulating attendances and sales of merchandise, which so lights up the eyes of Endsleigh chairmen.

There may also be more in "grants" from the FA and Premier League - currently pounds 2m and pounds 1m respectively - when a new Premier TV deal comes into force for 1997 at a sum expected to be substantially greater than the pounds 304m over four years. Then again, more money at the top will mean the gap increasing again.

Brooking, Curbishley and Crosby all agree that it is getting harder. But it is still feasible that a First Division club - a well-supported one on a high of confidence - could win a cup, particularly the less keenly contested Coca-Cola, which sees Birmingham and Norwich play for a semi-final place this Wednesday.

You need, they say, to enjoy favourable draws, to raise your game, to have some luck. And there will be one "great escape" along the way. Brooking said: "You need the good draws, particularly in the third and fourth rounds. After that you begin to get excited and think you have a chance." At that point, Crosby added, some of the better Premier sides may have gone already. "You have always got a chance in one-off matches but it's unlikely if you keep drawing Premier sides," Curbishley said.

Historically, with a few exceptions, the FA Cup has always been the preserve of the big clubs, certainly since the abolition of the maximum wage, 35 years ago last Thursday. Before then, the talent was more widely distributed, along with the trophy.

So what of the magic of the FA Cup? It may take money to restore some of the romance, but in the meantime, any surprises that do occur should probably be all the more celebrated.