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Thursday, 16 June 2011

Carling Cup Woes

The first sign of the new football season drifted into view on Thursday in the shape of the Carling Cup draw, and the most eye-catching draw for fans in the West was a derby between two sides with unenviable recent records in the Carling Cup. The bonus of the draw means at least one of Bristol City or Swindon will reach the 2nd round, an achievement that will mark progress for either.

In a period of relative success in the league, City's record in the junior cup competition makes horrific reading. It's 23 seasons since the infamous two-legged semi-final against Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest, when the width of a post denied Alan Walsh a tie-winning goal, but there has been precious little to shout about since then.

Only one progression beyond the second stage in ten years, and five exits in the past six seasons to lower league opposition; Sven Goran Eriksson's Man City the side to disrupt that run in the second round, four seasons ago. Meanwhile Barnet, Cheltenham, Crewe, Carlisle and Southend have left City licking their wounds and missing out on potentially money-spinning ties against Premier League sides in the later rounds.

So, what is it that has proven so difficult for what has essentially been a good team? These have not been lucky wins scraped by a lower-league team who have stuck 10 men behind the ball and scraped a lucky, deflected, late winner. Carlisle and Barnet in particular played City off the park at Ashton Gate and fully deserved their victories.

A couple of the exits have been down to ambitious selections, with Gary Johnson sensing opportunities to give some of the back-up players a chance when City should have run out comfortable victors. During this period we're talking about players of the calibre of Scott Murray, Lee Trundle, Gavin Williams, Ivan Sproule, Phil Jevons and Cole Skuse - no mugs, but perhaps the lack of motivation for a match-winning performance stemmed from Johnson's reluctance to change the set-up of the first team to accommodate some of these players on a more regular basis. It's easy to blame Steve Coppell's lack of hunger and passion for last season's exit to Southend, but a virtually full, expensively-assembled first-team should have had enough about them to see off the Shrimpers.

There appears to be little rhyme nor reason behind the poor record, so what will Millen do this year? The gaffer himself and the board are endlessly talking up the importance of improving the financial situation and cash-flow, and there's no doubt the lack of decent cup-runs has contributed to massive losses in the past couple of seasons. So we should expect a first-team, and should expect to comfortably beat a side from two divisions below at home, but players are rarely motivated by the prospect of improving the club's coffers, so Millen needs to get to the bottom of why this particular set of players appear to switch off when it comes to the cup competitions and ensure they produce a performance that matches their status.

Meanwhile, some 45 miles up the M4, Swindon have an equally poor, if not worse record. To provide some insight into Swindon's recent failings and his hopes for this first-round match, Ron from http://www.thewashbag.com offers this view:

After the high of reaching the Semi-Final against Bolton Wanderers back in early 1995, Swindon have failed to progress past the 2nd Round 15 times in the past 16 years. That only anomaly being a 3rd Round appearance in 1996/97, culminating in a narrow 2-1 defeat for Steve McMahon's side at Old Trafford.

Despite the many failures we have the memories of going two nil up as a Division Two side against Premier League Champions Blackburn in 1995/96, only to lose 3-2 and exit in the second leg. Taking another 2-0 lead against a then 'mighty' Leeds United in 2003, only for Leeds to equalise in the dying minutes through a Paul Robinson header and eventually fall on penalties.

It comes as no surprise that the season when we did progress beyond a 1st Round defeat came in 2009/2010. A 4-1 1st Round win away at MK Dons thanks to a stunner from JP McGovern, a Billy Paynter brace and an own goal, set up a tie with Premier League Wolves at Molineux. Town gave as good as they got as they were resolute and held a strong Wolves side for 120 minutes, taking the tie to penalties. The first eleven penalties were scored and it fell to bandaged captain Gordon Greer to strike the post to send Wolves through.

For a Club that prides and ultimately built itself on the 1969 League Cup victory over Arsenal, the abject failure of winning just a single tie in the past 6 years is just becoming even more difficult to put right. Town have fallen into the basement division and we're without a seeding for the 1st Round. Whilst a local derby tie away at Ashton Gate certainly raises an eyebrow and provides an early season grudge match, the possibility of putting right our dismal League Cup form is looking shaky to say the least. Or will it?

With a new passionate manager in Paolo Di Canio surely this derby provides no better game to galvanise and unite the squad, a squad to contain many new faces.

The opportunity to capitalise on this match and an early season cup wins as a springboard to cement our League form is a chance that shouldn't be readily dismissed.

Also, one thing we've shown in recent years is we can step up and be a match for a higher division side.

So this despite the talking, this tie isn't over yet.


There's no doubt City will start this tie as massive favourites, and with the financial emphasis running through the veins of the club, Millen will almost certainly pick a near first team. But recent history has proven that may not be enough, and Swindon's fiery new manager will be desperate to prove an early point against higher-placed opposition, whilst the players and fans will be geed up by the chance to play their local rivals once more and score some points for the underdog.

The Exiled Robin & The Washbag

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