Wigan raise fear FA Cup can prove poisoned chalice

Sheffield United manager Nigel Clough
Sheffield United manager Nigel Clough
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nigel CLOUGH believes Wigan Athletic’s shock FA Cup triumph has increased the apprehension among Premier League managers that focusing on two competitions can ultimately lead to relegation.

The Latics made history last May by beating Manchester City in the Wembley final and then slipping out of the top flight just three days later.

As Paul Lambert, the manager of Sheffield United’s third-round opponents Aston Villa, made clear this week when admitting the world’s oldest knockout competition was “something we could do without”, a need to stay in the Premier League over-rides any dreams of glory in the Cup.

Clough, a former finalist with Nottingham Forest as a player and who once took Manchester United to a replay when in charge of non-League Burton Albion, admits to understanding the sentiments expressed by Lambert.

However, the Blades’ manager is also an unashamed fan of the FA Cup and insists today’s starting XI will be the strongest he can put out.

Asked if he planned apeing Lambert by prioritising League One survival over a Cup run, Clough told the Yorkshire Post: “I think Sheffield United can do both.

“We can ensure our safety in the league and have a Cup run as well. I think the way we have approached our previous two games in the competition reflects our feelings on the competition.

“We put out full-strength sides and scored five goals in two potentially difficult away ties (at Colchester and Cambridge).

“I know people will say Premier League sides should be able to do the same as us, but I think the fear factor is so great that it prevents them doing so. Relegation is the big fear and I believe that is behind a lot of the negative press that the Cup gets.

“Wigan could have added to that fear, too. They won the Cup last year, but went down. Then, this year, they have had the added complication of the Europa League – which brought a lot of games on top of the 46 in the Championship.

“The thing is that Wigan don’t look like coming back at this moment in time, either. It will be interesting to see how much that costs them in the long run.”

United will be backed by a travelling army of around 6,000 fans today underlining that, for supporters, the magic of the Cup remains.

Clough added: “Supporters don’t feel negatively about the Cup, nor do the players. But for the clubs, there is the financial fear.

“Of course, there is a financial fear in League One about relegation. But we are not talking about a drop in income from £80m down to £23m – and that £23m of parachute payments comes with no guarantee of getting back up.

“If the worst came to the worst here, it would be nothing like that. Not, I must stress, that we are even thinking like that.

“In terms of what relegation can mean to a Premier League club, just look at Bolton. They have just announced another £50m loss and now owe £164m.

“That shows how devastating relegation can be for clubs. The glory of the FA Cup is all very well and it does mean a lot to supporters. But, even if Bolton get back up, how do they cope with that level of debt?

“That is why I can completely understand Paul’s honesty and I am sure if you asked his Premier League counterparts, they would say the same. It is, though, slightly depressing as well.

“We have all been brought up believing the FA Cup to be the best competition in the world.”

Clough’s father Brian famously won every major honour in European football but the FA Cup and the Blades’ chief admits the current prioritising of the league would displease him.

“He pursued every game, regardless of the competition,” said Clough junior. “We would even put out a full team in the Mercantile Credit Trophy, if you remember that, and the Simod Cup, where at Forest we got to the final.

“Going even further back, he pursued the Watney Cup with Derby. He just wanted to win every game. I am sure he would have been saddened to see what has happened to the Cup.

“I appreciate that the pace of the game has changed, but I don’t think you can subscribe to the fatigue theory and players needing a rest.

“I have spoken to Garry Birtles and John Robertson about playing for Forest. They once made 150 appearances over two seasons. Neither wanted a rest. I know things have changed but, as a player, you want to play every game and win every game.”

United are one of eight Yorkshire clubs in third-round action today with the other highlights including Middlesbrough taking on Hull City at the Riverside.

Leeds United, Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield Town all face potentially tricky trips to opposition from further down the football pyramid, while Doncaster Rovers host Stevenage as Barnsley face Coventry City at Oakwell.

Reds manager Danny Wilson knows all about the Cup’s ability to throw up shocks after masterminding the Yorkshire club’s stunning win over Manchester United in 1998.

Wilson recalls: “It was a fantastic day for everyone and we were rejoicing for quite a while, though we might have lost a few league games afterwards.

“Every schoolboy dreams of playing at Wembley. I don’t think it is any different nowadays with the romance and dreams of drawing a club in the next round still being there.

“It is the best cup competition in the world, no doubt about it.”