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The end of the affair?

As Premiership survival becomes the ultimate goal for many teams, English soccer’s romantic attachment to the FA Cup may well be at an end words.

Tony Cascarino, 17 Jan 2007

Much as I enjoyed the weekend’s FA Cup action, I’m disappointed at the way some managers seem to have dismissed the competition.

Sheffield United fielded more or less a reserve line-up, and lost 3-0 at home to Swansea. Afterwards, Neil Warnock seemed almost relieved to have been knocked out – he had a big smile on his face, anyway. I don’t understand that attitude. They had a whole week to prepare for their next game, and it was a great opportunity to kick-start a good Cup run.

Fine, his priority is to survive in the Premiership. But I don’t see how that would have been jeopardised by picking his best team for the Cup. I think you should send your best team out every week, which gets them fitter and stronger. If you take your foot off the pedal, it sends out the wrong message. And their reserves clearly weren’t good enough, as Swansea proved.

There were some good games: Liverpool-Arsenal was a great game, played at a great pace, and it was pleasantly surprising to see them both fielding their strongest team. It’s ironic: the Cup was undermined in the first place by the really top teams, the Liverpools, Arsenals and Uniteds, who started leaving out their best players.

And yet now, all these teams are sending out their best line-ups in the Cup, while the less fashionable Premiership clubs are neglecting it. You could see that both Liverpool and Arsenal knew how much it meant, and rightly so.

Neither of them are going to win the Premiership, and the Cup gives them a chance of serious silverware. It’s not a Mickey Mouse competition, and it shouldn’t be treated like one. Manchester United have also come back around to that point of view – they may have shuffled things a bit against Aston Villa, but they were clearly out to win. And Henrik Larsen made a great debut.

I’ve heard the rumours that Jose Mourinho’s job at Chelsea is under threat, that Abramovich and Kenyon might replace him with Gus Hiddink if they have another couple of bad results. If that’s the case, they need their heads examined. They’d be insane to fire him; look at his record since he arrived.

They’ve drawn a few recently, but they haven’t actually lost since early November, and you have to take the injuries on board. It’s complete lunacy to even consider changing him, though I won’t be stunned if it happens. If they do, they’ll live to regret it.

There’s been a tug-of-war between Sunderland, Celtic and Charlton for Anto Stokes’ signature, and at present it looks like he’s gone for Sunderland. He’s a tricky customer with an eye for goal, who never lets defenders relax and almost always gets it on target. I can see why Arsenal didn’t keep him, because he’s not quite as blisteringly quick as Arsene Wenger likes his forwards to be. But he’s a talented lad who should progress quickly.

Obviously Celtic could offer 60,000 crowds, championships, cups and a Champions’ League tie against AC Milan, but they might not have been able to guarantee first-team football week-in week-out, which he’ll get at Sunderland.

And he’s 18, so it’s a massive coup for Sunderland if they get him. Roy Keane’s trying to build something for the long term at the Stadium of Light – he’ll have seen the way Alex Ferguson gave young lads their break, and he’s found a gem.

The crisis at Glasgow Rangers has come to a head, with Paul Le Guen getting fired, and Dunfermline knocking them out of the Cup. At present, it looks like Walter Smith and Ally McCoist are going to arrive as a ‘dream ticket’ with Walter’s experience and Ally’s enthusiasm.

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