Cup Run/League Form

Sobs looks at the impact that past cup runs have had on our league form...

One of the debates that takes place every season at any club lucky enough to have a cup run concerns the effect that run may or may not have on the club’s league performances. Clubs like Man City have enough players of the requisite quality to mount a serious assault on three cups as well as the Premier League, while also progressing, via their bairns, to the quarter finals of the Checkatrade Trophy – but more of that later. Most teams haven’t got that many players of whatever quality, but the debate will still take place. Exactly what constitutes a cup run is also a matter of debate - more than two games, more than three (not including replays, of course) – who knows? In Sunderland’s case, it’s often been simply progressing to the second stage of whatever cup it is. Win the cup, and it becomes a moot point – or does it?

In a vain attempt to put some statistical evidence behind the argument - sorry, debate – let’s have a look at how good old SAFC have fared in the league while partaking of a cup run.

Way back when all of this was fields, made of wood and cost threepence, and all footballers worthy of the shirt sported ‘taches that would have today’s hipsters reduced to quivering wrecks, we had a canny season in ’12-‘13. Bob Kyle’s side almost had a cup run of the ultimate variety, only losing out to Villa in our nine-and-a-half game of the competition. There had been two replays against them up the road, and a replay at Hyde Road, Manchester, which was abandoned after an hour because of “frequent encroachment by spectators”. City were fined £500, almost enough to pay Aguero for five minutes, and the replay was switched to Roker. The final itself was notable for the last penalty miss (Wallace of Villa) until Aldridge in 1988, and the ding-dong between Villa’s centre forward Hampton and our winner of the “most fearsome ‘tache of all time” award, Charlie B. Thompson. Both were subsequently banned for a month, as was the ref Mr Adams - but in his case, it was for playing 17 minutes injury time, presumably while examining a betting slip and wearing Paddy Power plus-fours. As far as having an impact on the league, we won 28 of a record (at the time)54 points total during the cup run, and finished top – so the run had a positive effect, especially when you consider that we’d lost five of the first seven games that season. Perhaps the league buggered up the cup, perhaps it didn’t. POSITIVE.

In ’36-‘37, as reigning league champions, our FA Cup adventure under Johnny Cochrane began with us in fourth place on 29 points, and saw us progress to the final via a replay with Luton and two, including extra time, against Wolves which saw us play them men from Molineux five times in March – and you were sick of the sight of Walsall! Of course, we won the final 3-1, but slipped to eighth in the league, picking up 15 of our 44 point total while on the road to Wembley, so you could argue that the cup took its toll… but we did win it. Statistically NEGATIVE, morale-wise “who cares, we won the FA Cup” thus POSITIVE. Overall, then, NEUTRAL.

Our next FA Cup run came under Bill Murray (no, not that one) in ’55-‘56, when it consisted of seven games, including replays with York and Sheffield Utd, and a victory up the road thanks to a brace from Bill Holden. It had started with a 4-2 win against Norwich when in fourth place, and ended with a 0-3 defeat to Birmingham at Hillsborough when in seventh, and the season finished with us sitting in mid-table obscurity in ninth. As we’d gained 19 of our 43 points during the cup run, it’s still up for debate whether it had a positive or negative effect on the league. NEUTRAL.

Moving on to ’72-‘73, we sat 18th in the league when we set out on the road to Wembley, having stuttered out way through the first half of the season and changed managers a month or so earlier, bringing in a bloke who introduced the trilby/mackintosh combo to fashion. Of the twenty league games remaining, we won eleven, drew four and lost five. A draw (at Cardiff, as they basically applauded us for our defeat of Dorty Leeds) and a defeat (at home to QPR, who kicked lumps out of us) were actually achieved in games rearranged because of the cup run and took place in the four days following the final. As we won 26 or our 46 points that season during the cup run to finish 6th (a play-off place in today’s money) it has to have been a morale booster. POSITIVE

Three years later, Bob Stokoe had us sitting comfortably at the top of the Division Two table when the cup run began, and, although it lasted a mere five games, it took us to a home quarter final against Palace in early March ‘76. With the cigar-smoking, fedora-wearing Malcolm Allison in charge, the Eagles inflicted our only home defeat of the season thanks to an Alan Whittle goal, and we concentrated on the league. Which we won by three points. Was the cup run a distraction? Well, the six league games played during it averaged a point apiece, while the 36 others averaged 1.38, so it could be argued that it was. However, we won the league, so we don’t care, but it’s still a NEGATIVE.

The League Cup in ‘84-’85 took place mostly during the first half of the season, beginning with a two-legged defeat of Palace, then replay victories at home to Forest (thanks to Howard “Hamstring” Gayle’s extra-time screamer) and away to Spurs (where Chris Turner saved a late penalty). The two-legged semi-final was the stuff of legend, with Colin West bagging both in a 2-0 home win over Chelsea as Benno and David Speedie began their feud, and Chelsea old boy Clive Walker getting two at the Bridge to cancel out David Speedie’s early opener before Westy rounded a police horse to get the winner. West didn’t even make the bench for the final, Walker’s penalty miss was the first in a cup final at Wembley, and Norwich won with a Gordon Chisholm o.g. That’s despite us winning 3-1 at Carrow Road the week before. Westy, understandably miffed at not being picked, had a word with manager Len Ashurst, and was sold to Watford where he scored seven times in their remaining 12 games. We, on the other hand, only managed five as we picked up a meagre five of our season’s total of 40 points and went down with Norwich. Did it have a negative effect on our league form? Well, in the 23 games played during the run, we gained 22 points. That’s an average of 1.045 per game, while the remainder averaged 0.94, so no, it would appear the opposite is true – but, the defeat appeared to knock the stuffing out of us and effectively kill our season as we averaged only 0.41 points per game after Wembley. Sod statistics, it’s a NEGATIVE.

In ’91-’92, we were a 15th placed Division One team who’d reacted to a poor first half of the season that saw us sitting in 17th by sacking Denis Smith. Malcolm Crosby took over, won his first league game, and beat Port Vale in the third round of the FA Cup. Despite initially climbing up to mid-table, we eventually dropped down the league as we followed that victory by knocking out Oxford and West Ham (after a replay) to face Chelsea in the quarters. A draw at the Bridge brought on one of Roker’s all-time classic games, with Davenport’s opener being cancelled out late on by Denis Wise, setting up Gordon Armstrong to score the one of the old ground’s most memorable goals. In the 27 years since, the point of contact has moved from 18 yards out to about 35, but it’s one that nobody present will ever forget. The semi-final win over Norwich was fairly straightforward by comparison – and so, unfortunately, was Liverpool’s victory in the final. We spent most of the run hovering just above the drop zone, and the games between the semi and the final ended with a win then four draws. We managed 16 points from the 20 league games during the run, at 0.8 per game, while the 26 preceding it brought 37 at 1.4 per game. That’s a pretty conclusive NEGATIVE.

The ‘98’99 season was the one where Peter Reid’s team blew the socks off the second tier following the play-off defeat by Charlton. As we smashed all before us in the league, the League Cup run began in August against York, took us past Chester, Grimsby, Everton (in a penalty shoot-out), and Luton before ending in a defeat over two legs by Leicester in February. While it didn’t seem to have any effect on our league form or position, as we were seventh when it began after a solitary league game, which we’d won, and stayed top thereafter. it no doubt helped to maintain the momentum of good form. The narrow defeat by Leicester, then an established Premier League side managed by some bloke called O’Niell, out us firmly on the radar of the English football world, and on the brink of our highest league finishes in a lifetime. POSITIVE.

In ‘03’04, we were sitting in fourth under Mick McCarthy when we edged past Hartlepool by a single goal in the third round of the FA Cup, and ended the season in third, only to be bullied out of the play-off semi-finals by sixth (inevitable, I guess) placed Palace. On our way to being bullied out of the Cup semi- final by Denis Wise and Kevin Muscat, we’d seen off Ipswich at their place, Birmingham in a memorable replay at St Andrews, and Sheffield Utd at home. At Old Trafford, where we outnumbered the Millwall fans by two to one, and with the winners guaranteed European competition, we let them get on our nerves and fell to a goal by Tim “inevitable” Cahill. Perhaps it’s significant that they were the only side to do the league double over us that season, but what is definitely significant is that our league form after the run was worse than during and before. Those nine games brought 14 points at an average of 1.55 per game (three points by then, folks), while the 11 during brought 21 at an average of 1.9 and the 26 preceding it brought 47 at an average of 1.8. It looks like those Cup games had taken their toll. NEGATIVE.

In a period where we changed managers as often as our socks, we’d got shot of Mad Paolo Di Canio in favour of another Bally caretaker stint before Gus Poyet arrived in the October of ‘13-’14. In the League Cup, Di Canio had seen us past MK Dons and Bally had seen us past Peterborough before Gus got a crack at the competition against Southampton in November. He got us through that one thanks to Bardo and Seb , then a memorable extra time contest against Chelsea thanks to Borini and Ki (not Ji) to set up a semi-final against Man U – the first leg to be played two days after our FA Cup campaign began at home to Carlisle. Here it got a bit complicated, as a run in both cup competitions was up and running – something almost unheard of at Sunderland. We beat United 2-1 in a game that marked Marcos Alonso’s debut, after disposing of the Cumbrians 3-then did for the Mancs in one of the club’s most memorable away games, after a penalty shoot-out in which Phil Jones nearly decapitated a home fan. We then played Southampton again, this time in the FA Cup, winning by a Craig Gardner goal, to set up a quarter final against Hull.

That came a week after the League Cup final against Man City, a game we lost but because of which we made a lot of football friends. Then came the Hull game, in which Ustari made his only appearance, saving a penalty before three second half goals did for us in an awful performance that added a phrase to the Mackem dictionary (appendix 1) – “If Gus hadn’t picked that team at Hull” (which also included Dossena, Vergini, and Scocco) is now up there with “Sort it out, Quinny” as a ready response to a sticky situation. We’d started the conflated cup runs in 20th place, so things could hardly get any worse, reached the heady heights of 14th between the Kidderminster and Southampton FA Cup games thanks to the usual 3-0 up the road, then dropped to 18th after the final two cup defeats. One point from the next six had us nailed to the bottom before a draw followed by four straight wins had us safe in 14th and the Greatest Escape was complete. What effect did the cup runs have on our league season? The fact that we were out of the drop-zone during the second half of it/them, albeit by only one or two places, shows they must have had some positive effect – probably endorsed by us dropping to the bottom two soon after they ended. However, that late-season run must have been as a result of reverting to the winning mentality that had typified them. What would have happened had we beaten Hull and faced Sheffield Utd? We’d have probably been favourites, but been massive underdogs against eventual winners Arsenal. Overall, and only because it showed that we had the spirit to do the necessary, POSITIVE.

This season, it’s a run in a new competition, the first opportunity our first team has had, and it’s given some youngsters a chance – Kimpioka and Mumba to name but two. It’s meant a hectic schedule of late, but I don’t think that’s been a negative thing, as we’ve reached the final of the competition without losing sight of the top two and it’s given the fans something to smile about. Unless, of course, our trip to Wembley results in an ambulance-load of injuries, so let’s wait and see.

There you have it, then. Non-expert opinion melded seamlessly with non-expert statistical analysis and a fair old sprinkling of conjecture and supposition gives us four positive, two neutral, five negative, and a “wait and see”. Based on this fairly arbitrary assessment, cup runs are a bad thing. Sort of, and only just.