Learning Lessons?

After League Two side Bradford stunned Aston Villa to reach the Capital One Cup final, Adam Bate wonders whether Premier League clubs will heed the lesson and prioritise trophies rather than a mid-table finish.

Will Premier League managers be willing to put up a real fight for the FA Cup?

Will Premier League managers be willing to put up a real fight for the FA Cup?

Football-speak has become so familiar to us all that you were half expecting Bradford's players to tell us that this League Cup run was merely a bit of fun. Nothing more than a distraction from the all-important slog of the league season. That's the 'serious business', don't you know. The 'bread and butter'. But then you saw the crowd. You saw the players. And the pretence was over. The League Cup final will be the biggest game of their lives.

The oft-forgotten truth is that it would have been the biggest game for many of those Aston Villa players too. It's a few months short of 10 years since Newcastle played in the group stages of the UEFA Champions League. Since then only six English clubs have competed at that level. Those six clubs - there's little need to name them - have won seven of the last eight League Cups and an astonishing 16 of the last 17 FA Cup finals.

Only Portsmouth and Birmingham have interrupted those sequences of domination. One of them had to go bust to achieve it and the other was surprisingly relegated 12 weeks later. You can see why so many Premier League clubs prefer to overlook the simple joys of what used to be two of the biggest dates in the English football calendar.


But Bradford have shown it is possible. After a two-hour tussle with Arsenal and a two-legged semi-final no less. Before Premier League managers send out their teams for this weekend's FA Cup fourth-round action, they'd surely be well advised to think of the Bantams and remember that the competition is not a place for rotation but to go for the throat. After all, squad shuffling only favours the elite.

As Fulham players prepare to travel to Old Trafford to take on Manchester United, one wonders whether they've seen the headline in The Sun claiming 'Manchester United won't give Fulham a second to breathe'. "It's a trophy I want," claims United midfielder Tom Cleverley in the article. "Playing at Wembley is one of the best feelings of your career. We've got a few players who haven't won anything in this country yet - like me. So anything we're involved in, I want to win."

The Cottagers are currently 14th in the Premier League and have been established in the top-flight for over a decade. And yet, can there be any confidence that Martin Jol's players will approach the fixture with the same intensity as their hosts? And that's surely a mistake. Because football supporters are still dreaming of trophies even if those in the board room are not.

Mid-table clubs should be prioritising a cup run in August. But even in January with safety all but assured many are happy to use the competition to keep squad players content. And then there is the chairman to think about. He's chasing those bonuses for a higher league placing. And so, managers will talk of going on a run in the league that can seal that Europa League place - the same competition they'll label a nuisance the following year should they get there.

Another way

But there's another way. Consider the words of Swansea boss Michael Laudrup. Words he uttered, crucially, before the start of this season. "I don't think it's just a matter of what number we are going to be in the table because, really, it doesn't matter if we are 10th or 14th," Laudrup told the Guardian back in August. "Who will remember if we have 43 or 48 points?"

The Dane was referring to the importance of the team retaining their style. But he might just as easily been talking about the glory that can come with a cup run. They'll remember Wembley, all right.

So this weekend, keep an eye on that Everton team selection at Bolton. Be sure to cast a suspicion glance in the direction of Tony Pulis at the Britannia Stadium if he elects to give Michael Owen more than 10 minutes of action for Stoke. And asks yourself how much Jol's players are willing to sacrifice in order to extend their stay in this year's FA Cup upset.

Because this is a chance to win a cup final. And Bradford have given the Premier League also-rans a timely reminder of just how special chasing that achievement can be.