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Aug 6, 2014

The cost of a cup run for smaller clubs

Paul Lambert has been outspoken in prioritising results in the Premier League over the league and FA Cups.

It may have betrayed something of a closed-minded attitude towards the old knockout competitions, but it also finally opened up the debate properly. Back in January, Paul Lambert had said what many suspected: the domestic cup competitions don't matter all that much to many managers. Before that, the vast majority of his Premier League counterparts had only implied it through their team selections. Lambert explicitly stated it.

"That is the nature of it," the Aston Villa manager said. "If anyone says any differently then I am not so sure they will be telling the truth, because the Premier League is the most vital thing that anyone wants to get into and we are no different.

"Cup competitions, if you can get through, then absolutely I want to get through. I don't want to not get through, but your main one is the league. We don't have a massive squad and points are really important."

The implication there is that cup runs affect the return on those points, and some stats would seem to back up Lambert. You only have to look at sides relegated in the same seasons as trips to Wembley: Wigan Athletic 2012-13, Birmingham City 2010-11 and Portsmouth 2009-10.

"It is realistic," Lambert said of his view.

Of course, it's also been argued that "realism" is precisely the problem the stark financial figures of the Premier League has created: the managers who should be pushing limits of what's possible at a club are too concerned with what's probable. They aren't so willing to allow the dreaming that cup runs generally allow.

You only have to consider the quiet excitement of this time of year in England. For all that the country is gearing up for the bombastic return of the Premier League, part of the optimism is the temporary feeling that anything is possible. "Maybe a cup run, too" is often a refrain among fans.

For his part, Steve Bruce was one manager who went against Lambert.

"There is no harm in a cup run because sometimes it can galvanise you," the Hull City manager said. "While a club like us cannot win the Premier League -- we understand that, we are not good enough -- but we can win the FA Cup because you just never know the draw."

Bruce also backed up those words with his actions. Hull came within a few kicks of replicating Wigan's feat in 2013. They led Arsenal for much of the 2014 FA Cup final, only to fall close to the end.

Roberto Martinez led Wigan to an improbable FA Cup triumph before being relegated.

At the very least, the spirit of the club had been lifted in the way a regular league campaign so rarely manages. The deeper question, however, is whether that caused any drop in form, any negative effect that managers like Lambert fear.

Curiously, it is not just Bruce who provides a counterexample to the Villa manager's attitude. His team provided counterevidence in this ongoing debate. Hull didn't come close to relegation as a consequence of their cup run, and that after a preseason in which almost everyone predicted the promoted side to go down.

The cases of the past few years are also more complicated than the more extreme examples like Wigan's relegation would indicate.

Here, we took all of the Premier League teams from outside the usual European qualifiers to have made either the League Cup or FA Cup final in the last five years, and compared their league position in the season of the cup run to the one before.

So, out of nine teams, three were relegated; another team's position got worse; two remained the same but three improved. That offers a few shades of grey.

Similarly, the reality of those seasons is often far more complicated than the bald stats imply. Portsmouth's 2010 relegation had far more to do with the club's perilous financial situation than the cup run, with the trip to Wembley instead offering regular relief from the rigours of a hugely trying campaign.

There is also the fact that their points-per-game record actually improved while on that surge. Those figures for each of those nine clubs further muddy the situation, as is seen below. (Note: for League Cup runs, it was decided to take the period from only the fourth round on as part of their cup run, due to the early stage at which it starts and the longer gaps between fixtures.)

Again, it's no longer so clear-cut. Wigan actually improved in terms of points per game, although there is an argument that the demands of the run did prevent them from replicating the sensational surge from the end of the 2011-12 season. In that previous campaign, they managed a momentous 2.33 from their last nine games. In the FA Cup season, the extra games may have sapped that extra effort.

Last year, however, Gus Poyet's Sunderland did seem galvanised by their run -- as Bruce suggested. They put together a superb run of results over that time, and then actually suffered a dip once they were beaten by Manchester City in the final.

The consequence of all of this is that Lambert's view may not quite be as "realistic" as he thinks. While there is a certain amount of evidence that a cup run can negatively affect league form, depending on extra circumstances, there is just as much to suggest the opposite.

It can genuinely go either way. The memories of a trip to Wembley, though, never go away. The "reality" Lambert cites does not seem enough to deny fans a chance to dream.

Miguel Delaney

Miguel Delaney is London correspondent for ESPN and also writes for the Irish Examiner, the Independent, Blizzard and assorted others. He is the author of an award-nominated book on the Irish national team called 'Stuttgart to Saipan' (Mentor) and was nominated for Irish sports journalist of the year in 2011.

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