July 3rd 1999
Two short items on your sports pages today raised my heckles at the recent decision of the FA to give Manchester United the chance to withdraw from the FA Cup.
In the Sports Digest (Rugby Union) it is noted without comment or complaint that Leicester and Northampton will play their traditionally hard-fought derby on September 11th without any of their international players and that, moreover, will be without them until mid-November because of the rugby world cup. By contrast, in the main body of the Sports Section, the re-arranged Ireland world cup qualifier against Yugoslavia on September 1st is seen as adding to Manchester United’s “fixture problems” as United would be without Dennis Irwin and Roy Keane.
When teams like United (Arsenal and Chelsea too) have first team squads with team numbers up to the high 30’s, and many of the players are high quality internationals (Dennis Irwin, for example, would probably be replaced by England international Philip Neville for United’s game!) surely it is not beyond reason to insist that the practice of postponing matches at the time of international games, at least, should be stopped. Throughout the cricket season county teams play on in two separate leagues without a whimper while their best players, and sometimes two or three from a given county, turn out for England. Clearly the same is going to be the case with rugby union throughout its world cup. And a couple of years ago I remember seeing Spanish premier league games during a weekend when the national team was playing.
One solution is for the FA to drop the insulting phrase “weakened team” when a team selects players other than the “first choice” squad members in a match. On the contrary, the manager would be using the enlightened practice of developing a “strengthened squad”! A Manchester United player would only play the oft-quoted “70 games a season” if the manager were foolish enough to play him for every game rather than utilise the full range of his playing staff.
Going further, and focusing the full range of the large squad on different competitions would have the additional benefit of (a) giving the higher-numbered players in the squad more match experience (b) ensuring that each competition (League, FA Cup, Worthington Cup, European games, world club matches…) has all eligible teams competing and (c) allowing more young home-grown players to emerge.
Press and television’s concentration on the top three, and the paranoia induced thereby, is becoming increasingly tiresome.