Survival of the Fittest (or the ones who field kids)

Survival of the Fittest (or the ones who field kids)

There’s a problem that English clubs and the FA are facing at the moment, and that is how to retain a balance between heritage and quality. After all, a football club’s sole concern is to remain competitive, to grow and to develop. This will keep the fans happy, the sponsors happy and in turn attract a higher quality of player and allow the club to become bigger and better. It is a big happy cycle. The problem that exists now, however, is that clubs do not equate the winning of competitions (or certainly some competitions, anyway) with success. After all, football is no longer just sport, it is a professional business and as such, priorities shift.

It could be argued that the soul of football was traded in in the late 19th century, when the Aristocracy that hitherto had controlled and shaped the destiny of football had to relent its control and legalise professional football, which –  beyond allowing the pesky proletariat in on their fun on a full-time basis – diversified the essence of football. Instead of primarily being about demonstrating vim and fervor, winning now became of paramount importance.

And now, it could also be argued, the definition of winning has changed. Whereas in the free-for-all of the messy early days of professional football, winning could easily be translated into winning competitions, now merely operating at the highest level is considered winning. But is it wrong to trade heritage and prestige, of winning competitions that are winnable by the very fact that on any given day a football match is a very fickle thing, for profit margins and domestic mediocrity? No, it isn’t, it’s just the way the game  has evolved. And thus the importance of domestic cup competitions dwindles – instead progressing to the highest level of the game (that is generally accessible to the club) becomes the main focus.

For instance, if you were to canvass a cross-section of Birmingham City fans if they’d trade in their League Cup success for survival in the Premier League, I don’t think it’s a leap to suggest that most would happily do so. The Birmingham case also throws up the interesting situation that Alex McLeish will face next season, and that is of yet another cup competition to deal with, which means more games and the problem of how to stretch an already small squad to cover these new games. The harsh reality is that European competition will prove to be nothing more than a spot of frivolity for the club, who know what their priorities will be come next season, namely dealing with a squad that will have been asset stripped and re-building to get promoted back into the Premier League.

There is an accepted idea that Birmingham probably would have survived in the league without their success in the League Cup. After all, their squad has a mix of experience and quality that is perhaps greater than other teams who survived, as well as the fact that the club have invested relatively heavily in the past 18 months. But after a couple of injuries the squad soon looked thin on the ground and stretched out due to their progress and eventual success in the League Cup. It is hard to argue with the rationale behind the argument, after all you only have to look at Aston Villa who chose their priorities by fielding a weakened side in the FA Cup and emphasising success in the league, and managed to save themselves from ‘Survival Sunday’. This is quite a crass comparison – there are many mitigating factors in both narratives – but there is certainly evidence that clubs who try and minimize the exposure of their first team to the lowest amount of games possible will generally have a good campaign in the league.

Another example of this can be seen at Liverpool, where the side managed to play with a vitality and dynamism late in the season with a regular group of 12-15 players, because they had used the excesses of their squad in Europe and had, not purposefully, been eliminated from both domestic cup competitions, and it could still be argued that the team ran out of steam with a couple of games to go.

Most modern footballing competitions have differing grades of quality in amongst the teams, and to progress through each echelon a team needs years, and, even when they reach a higher level, sustaining that success can be infinitely more difficult. The examples of clubs who have been promoted from a lower division and been very successful in their first season at the top level in England are few and far between, and out of those the majority of them found themselves over-extended and got relegated the following season.

The same paradox features at every level in professional football, and doubly so at the highest end of the game. Since the creation of the Premier and Champions Leagues in the early 1990’s a sense of merely being able to compete in the competition has become the pinnacle of many teams objectives. This isn’t the fault of the clubs – they have to be realistic in a very competitive and financially difficult arena – but the trade off between the dilution of competition for the sake of economic, and essentially footballing, growth has now caused an era in which the same group of teams, primarily, compete at the top end of the game, the same clubs compete at the middle end, and the rest are, occasionally, just happy to be there.

The economic reality of football is evident all over the continent. Teams like Deportivo la Coruna, Valencia, Monaco, Leeds United and a host of others who at the turn of the century competed at the very top end of their domestic and continental competitions have had to deal with either relegation, financial hardships or both. So now clubs have learnt the lesson from errors of other clubs inasmuch as that survival is paramount above all other objectives, and surviving at the highest economic and footballing level possible is prioritised above success in “lesser” competitions.

The reality is that the football season is longer and harder for all clubs than it has ever been before and as such certain competitions will be devalued. This becomes the case doubly so when the economic practices of football are considered. A dilution of heritage and prestige is prevalent in modern football, but, on the same token, the quality of football and rewards for clubs and players have grown exponentially – now football fans, pundits, managers and players have to count the cost of what they have traded in for this. For clubs like Stoke, whose fans were delighted to be in the FA Cup final this year, their success has been ingrained in a steady transitional model and they have perhaps been the most successful club at attaining Premiership status and ensuring it in recent memory, but the reality is, if that FA Cup run had been in a previous season, it could have cost them their place at the table at the highest end of English football. This is the problem faced by many clubs: finding their level and ensuring they learn the lessons of other clubs trying to find their footing in the 21st century.

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