LONDON – It is F.A. Cup third-round weekend or, as English Premier League clubs call it, a chance to rest the top stars.
Managers will say players need a rest after three games over the holiday period, but the fact is the F.A. Cup is loose change compared to the Premier League. Victory at Wembley is worth £1.8 million to the winner compared with a minimum of £100 million for simply remaining in the elite league and double that for those who finish near the top.
For most Premier League clubs, the F.A. Cup and League Cup represent their only realistic chance of success, but silverware comes a poor second to the league position with £500,000 for each place higher you finish. Clubs battling against relegation will not risk injury to their best players; ditto those in contention for the title. Perhaps one of the middle order clubs such as West Bromwich or Bournemouth might see the F.A. Cup as a competition they can win and will field strong sides, but breath should not be held. Even mid-table mediocrity is more important than cup glory.
Winning the F.A. Cup means a place in the Europa League, yet even that is seen as a distraction from the Premier League — Southampton manager Claude Puel rotated his starting XI for European ties rather than risk his big guns ahead of a domestic game. He shed few tears when Southampton was knocked out of the competition.
For the elite clubs, the F.A. Cup is now seen as a consolation prize. Louis van Gaal was sacked 24 hours after Manchester United won the F.A. Cup last May, beating Crystal Palace 2-1 in the final. “Only” winning the F.A. Cup is now regarded as a sackable offense, which was far from the case in 1990 when winning the F.A. Cup effectively saved Alex Ferguson’s job at Old Trafford after it defeated Palace.
However, for all the indifference shown by the Premier League, someone, somewhere will be an unlikely hero today, a generally anonymous player who will enjoy his 15 minutes of fame. A non-league forward more accustomed to speaking to his club’s program editor a few times a season rather than featuring on BBC’s Match of the Day.
I covered non-league Sutton’s 2-1 victory over first division Coventry in 1989. It was mayhem after the game with football writers more used to speaking to established stars suddenly seeking out players they had never heard of and did not recognize. After the regulation questions about what the win meant to them, the interview tended to end: “Thanks — er, who are you?”
Controversy continues: The video technology brigade was in full voice again this week. Mike Dean had a bad night at the office Monday incorrectly sending off West Ham’s Sofiane Feghouli in the 2-0 defeat by Manchester United.
The Algerian had challenged United defender Phil Jones for a loose ball, Jones doing his best to convince Dean that Feghouli should be dismissed with a triple rollover as his teammates surrounded the referee to urge him to show a red card. Jones and company were successful with their dark arts.
In real time from one angle it was easy to sympathize with Dean, but multi-angle replays showed the tackle to be a cautionable offense at most and the dismissal was rightly overturned by the Football Association. However, the criticism of Dean was hostile and completely disproportionate and the predictable calls for video technology followed.
It’s so easy, the VTB claims, for so-called poor decisions to be reviewed and immediate justice seen to be done. The fourth official has a television monitor, he could watch a replay of an incident and notify the referee if a mistake had been made. While technology to determine whether all of the ball has gone over all of the goal-line has helped referees, it is one of the few black-and-white issues in football where virtually every decision officials make is subjective.
Some calls may be easy to rule on, but though the VTB disagrees, it should be stating the blindingly obvious that it is a far from simple operation.
What is a correct decision?
It is the one that any individual believes is right, though football is a game of opinions and television pundits often disagree with each other, as did two former referees who write newspaper columns this week.
“Michael Oliver got two key decisions wrong — especially the red card for Bournemouth captain Simon Francis. The challenge was not dangerous and it did not endanger the player’s safety. It was a challenge worthy of a yellow card,” wrote Mark Halsey.
“Oliver finished the game with another correct call as he dismissed Simon Francis for an over-the-top challenge on Ramsey. Overall a very composed display — well done, Michael,” wrote Graham Poll.(Bournemouth’s appeal for unfair dismissal was rejected).
What the VTB fails to explain is how technology would work. For example, 10 seconds after a challenge like Feghouli’s, a team scores. The fourth official has not seen the multi-angle replay of the tackle, so when he does and thinks the referee should have sent off a player, is the goal then disallowed and a red card shown?
Imagine the uproar from the side robbed of a perfectly good goal.
At the moment the referee, after consultation, can act on the advice of the fourth official regarding an act of violent conduct which he has not seen, which is very different from changing his view of something he has seen.
If the TV official notifies the referee he believes a decision was incorrect, does the referee simply take his word and reverse his decision?
A trial of the use of video technology to aid match officials has been approved by FIFA’s law-making body the International Football Association Board. The live trials, which are set to begin by next season, will allow referees to call on video assistance to help determine four categories of game-changing moments — goals scored, red cards, penalties and mistaken identity. A decision will be made after the two-year trial.
I cannot see how the sort of technology used in American football, a sport with natural breaks, can be transferred to soccer which is more continuous and does not allow time for the referee to stop the game to go to the sideline to review a call.
In the NFL only issues of fact can be challenged because how can you be 100 percent accurate about an opinion which is down to individual interpretation?
Even after a soccer referee has reviewed an incident you can bet many, not least the losing manager, will still disagree and blame him for the loss of three points. Some things will never change.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5