GILES SMITH: LOVING CUP
It is the cup competitions that occupy columnist and Chelsea fan Giles Smith this week, with some traditions to be respected but important changes also to be introduced…
The devaluation of the FA Cup is one of our time's more depressing football developments. It follows the devaluation of the League Cup, at which people now rarely bat an eyelid. Soon managers will start fielding weakened teams for European matches ('it's so far to go') and then for all league games ('we simply don't have the depth of squad available to make it a priority'), and then ultimately everyone will be complaining about ever having to play any football ever.
That's not the Chelsea way, of course. In a world of spiritless bean-counters, our club is a shining standard-bearer for the basic sporting virtue of competitiveness at all times. The season traditionally offers four competitions and our club traditionally tries to win them all. We know no other way here. The idea of sacrificing a competition in order to gain some kind of sneaky advantage in another competition is simply not a part of our club's historic culture, the way it is at, say, Manchester United and Arsenal and Liverpool.
Before our third round victory at Derby, Jose Mourinho spoke movingly and appropriately about the importance of the FA Cup - its standing within the English game, its place within his own personal portfolio of memories and achievements. As other managers moaned and grizzled and picked the entire youth team, one felt proud to be a Chelsea supporter.
Just one thing, though: why does it have to be played with a pink beach ball? What's going on there? If the FA wants people to take football's oldest club knockout competition more seriously, it could start by taking it more seriously itself, and choosing an official ball that doesn't look as if it has been grabbed from a net outside a bucket and spade shop.
We, here at Chelsea, love the FA Cup. But does the FA?
You know how it is with goal-scorers. Chelsea fans know this, as well as they know anything. Sometimes they go through droughts. There are periods when nothing goes right for them - periods when the player can't buy a goal. It's agonising. It plays on the mind, saps the strength. Somewhere inside, they must be wondering whether they will ever score.
But then they get a break. A chance arises and they take it. It may be a scruffy chance, a scrap - the ball falling loose in the box, a knee, a shin. It doesn't matter. The point is, they score. And it's like a dam bursting. All the pressure that has been building up during the period of goallessness suddenly escapes in a rush. And suddenly they're swimming in goals. Goal after goal.
And so it is with John Mikel Obi. He just needed that lucky break against Fulham. And the next minute he's rising like a salmon to nod home against Derby. Truly, the floodgates have opened. The man can't stop scoring.
As Sam Allardyce somehow didn't get round to saying after West Ham's 6-0 first-leg defeat at Manchester City in the Capital One Cup this week: it's only half-time.
The fact is, though, it doesn't need to be half-time. It could be full-time, if the will was there.
A few years ago, in this part of the website, we came up with a plan for a radical overhaul of the regulations surrounding the second legs of cup ties. Our notion was that they should be optional.
The lightbulb had gone on after the first leg of our own League Cup semi-final, against Everton. I advanced the view that our domination of the opening 90 minutes at Stamford Bridge had been so witheringly complete that Everton might as well give up - abandon the second leg as a manifest hiding to nothing and simply hand us the tie, and the place at Wembley, there and then, at the half-way stage.
I was, of course, joking. We had not dominated the first leg at all. Indeed, we would be taking to Goodison a terrifyingly slim 2-1 advantage earned by a bizarre late goal, with Shaun Wright-Phillips, of all people, climbing like a miniature Chris Bonnington at the far post to force Joleon Lescott to head us accidentally into a squeaky and obviously vulnerable lead. From the typically nervous fan's point of view, capitulation by Everton would have been very handy at that point in the battle.
Alas, the lack of seriousness in this argument didn't come across for some of this website's strangely numerous Merseyside-based browsers, who thought I had scorned their club's competitive spirit, and we found ourselves rather angrily accused of a 'lack of respect'. Perish the thought.
Incidentally, in the wake of this painful misunderstanding, I proposed accompanying any further attempts at humour on this web page with an emoticon of Ken Dodd, inserted either directly into the text or in the margin, so that people in that part of the world would know for sure that a joke was intended and that they didn't need to go to the trouble of getting all uppity in the local paper. I thought a graphic device of that kind would be both clarifying and decorative. Plus it's always cheering to see Ken Dodd, isn't it?
Alas, the computer boffins here at the Chelsea Website claimed to be 'too busy' to develop such an emoticon and my 'Doddy-flag' project never got off the ground. Which has been an abiding source of disappointment to me ever since, bordering on a grudge, in fact. I'll be raising it at the next inter-departmental meeting.
Anyway, now West Ham are 6-0 down to City and facing the prospect of a home return leg in which absolutely nobody, surely, anywhere in the world, has any interest whatsoever: either in watching it or participating in it.
People will say: it's football - anything can happen. But it's not football. It's West Ham. Under Sam Allardyce. Six goals adrift. To Manchester City. Needing to win 7-0, then. Or 6-0 to take the game into extra time with the possibility of penalties. Let's be serious. Even if West Ham change their manager in the meantime, and get one of those famous 'new-boss boosts', there is simply no way on earth that this tie is coming back.
Clearly, then, my 'optional second leg' notion, conceived in jest, is an idea whose time has come. All of this could be avoided if the team that's losing after the first leg had the option to call the second leg off, say 'Thanks, but we're done here', shake hands and go home. The world of football is always complaining about fixture congestion. Here's a pain-free way to relieve at least the most needless part of the blockage.
Make the second leg a matter of choice. Still feel you're in with a shout? Play on. 6-0 down to City? Call it quits. It's over to the Football League on this one.