I think it was the hermaphrodite Roman philosopher Favorinus of Arelate who first observed that faint praise can be much more destructive than open and vocal abuse. I’m not sure if Paul Lambert reads a lot of second century Roman philosophy but he took a papyrus scroll from old Fav’s book when responding to a question on the importance of the FA Cup in this the year of 2014 AD. “I don’t want to not get through” enthused the Villa manager ahead of his club’s third round tie with Sheffield United at the weekend. Surely he should really be saving those sort of inspirational double-negatives for the pre-match team-talk before sending his boys out to battle rather than using them to hasten the demise of once great competitions.
Cup competitions have of course been dying a slow tortuous death for some time now. Those under 30 years old are not even aware that winning them once carried some gravitas. The all-powerful Champions League even used to be a cup you know kids. But back then you would have needed an apostrophe in the title, Champion’s League.
The poor old European Cup Winners Cup was the first to be put out of its misery. Having the word cup in its name twice can’t have helped its cause. But I remember when it meant something. I can still see Sparky in 1991, taking the ball too wide then belting the ball home in the Dutch mud against Barça. No one had heard of a dinked finish back then. It was very early days in the modern United dynasty but that victory was celebrated long and hard.
I even remember when the English League Cup meant something. Back when it was the Milk Cup, the Littlewoods Challenge Cup, or the Rumbelows Cup. Even the sponsors hark back to a simpler time before beers, corporate banks and bookmakers seized control. I’m still not sure what line of work Rumbelows were in but I doubt they were as toxic as the alcohol, finance or gambling industries. By 1993 Coca Cola had got their grubby paws on it but it was still a big enough prize for Arsenal captain Tony Adams to hoist goal scorer Steve Morrow onto his shoulders in jubilation at the final whistle. That seconds later he body slammed the Northern Irishman into the Wembley turf, breaking his arm and causing him to miss out on the FA Cup final, is beside the point. They were proud and happy in a glorious victory and didn’t care who saw it. Today, Premier League teams use the competition to punish reserves and youth players who, with egos inflating as quickly as their bank balances, often need taken down a peg or two.
In 2009 the grim reaper finally caught up with the UEFA Cup and the Europa League was born. Its main purpose today is to embarrass the clubs who finish third in their Champions League groups. At the beginning of this season the manager of current holders Chelsea said winning the competition again would be a “big disappointment”. Disappointment can be defined as: sadness or displeasure caused by the non-fulfilment of one’s hopes or expectations. Another gem from the sound bite goldmine that is Jose Mourinho: get to work with that one Europa League PR people!
And now managers such as Lambert do not even bother to hide their disdain for the jewel in the crown, the FA Cup. There will be some interesting line-ups over the weekend as any team within a sniff of winning, qualifying for Europe, getting promoted or getting relegated suddenly realise they have enormous strength and depth in their squad. The amount of bit-part players that out of nowhere begin training out of their skin and knocking on the manager’s door demanding their chance on the week of a cup game never ceases to amaze me. I also can’t wait for Lambert’s post-match press conference. Expect something along the lines of, “I didn’t not want to not try to not win but in reality we as a club have to not expect not to want to win games we have not wanted to try to not win. Not”.
I’ll leave Paul and Jose and every other manager too good for the FA Cup with a thought from the autobiographical Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot by Alexander Pope, a poet of questionable character and few scruples when it came to protecting his own privileged position in life:
Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer,
And without sneering, teach the rest to sneer;
Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike,
Just hint a fault, and hesitate dislike.