There’s no contest for the Cup Losers’ Cup

So reviled and diminished have most football cup competitions become that Uefa should launch a knockout competition to discover which is the least loved.

The Cup Losers' Cup is no more than a working title and I've yet to discuss the idea in any detail with Michel Platini, the grand fromage of Europe's governing body. But these logistical hurdles aside - and the conceptual leap required to imagine a cup competition competing for a cup - I'd like
to predict a winner.

The field is a strong one and punters should not ignore the toxicity of the Carling Cup - previously the Milk, Littlewoods, Rumbelows, Coca-Cola and Worthington Cup. There's a rumour that it was once even called the League Cup but it's now so confused by corporatism that under-fire (always under-fire) Steve Kean, manager of near-bottom-of-the-table Blackburn Rovers felt justified to drop five of his best players for a quarter-final game against Cardiff City last November. To no one's great surprise, Blackburn lost - or rather, to borrow Kean's own word, "forfeited" the game.

Nor should one ignore the FA Cup, the new Carling Cup. The BBC, via the fawning Football Focus and Radio 5 Live, continues to talk it up but the more the corporation protests - using the words "romance" and "magic" over a perpetual loop of a sepia-tinted Ronnie Radford, both arms raised in triumph - the less convinced the rest of us become. That every radio commentary starts with a variation of "And they say there's no more magic in the cup . . ." is what's known as a failure of "framing", if I correctly recall last week's essay by my colleague Mehdi Hasan (further up the front, people).

Kean dropped five for the Carling Cup but Mick McCarthy dropped twice that number for an FA Cup replay earlier this month. His Wolves team lost, of course, but more telling was that nobody seemed to mind too much.

One might even make a case for the Africa Cup of Nations (currently on Eurosport and ITV4). This is a competition despised by Premier League managers, who remember to buy high-quality African players but forget that the Africa Cup of Nations is a biannual affair that takes place in the middle of our domestic season - thus depriving clubs of key players for six weeks or more.

But the Africa Cup is disqualified on two counts. First, self-serving Prem bosses aside, it is widely celebrated. Second, as Platini pointed out during our brief discussion on the subject, it's outside his jurisdiction.

Low five

No, the most deserving winner of the Cup Losers' Cup is the Europa League, a Uefa concoction so ill-conceived that it has become a legitimate form of terrace one-upmanship. The chant "Thursday nights, Channel 5/Thursday nights, Channel 5", may be a little cryptic, but every football fan knows that the combination of weeknight and terrestrial channel means just one thing - the interminable qualifying, to play-off, to group stage, to knock-out

Europa League. Schadenfreude is a football fan's stock-in-trade, so those who follow Manchester City and Manchester United - both now out of the superior "Tuesday, Sky Sports/Wednesday night, ITV1" Champions League - will have heard the Channel 5 refrain more than once, not least from fans of clubs likely to end up competing in it next season.

To win the Europa League each May, clubs have to play up to 23 games, starting (in some cases) 11 months prior to the final. Fulham made their first appearance on 30 June. And here's the thing: most teams that enter don't even want to win it. Spurs boss Harry Redknapp spoke for his trade when he asserted that not only do "teams who get into the Europa League want to get out of it" but that it was "harder to get out of the competition than it was to get in it".

Yet - proving once again Redknapp is the only candidate to replace Fabio Capello as England manager - Spurs did get out of it, finishing third in a group boasting the might of PAOK, FC Rubin Kazan and, yes, Shamrock Rovers. Now, that's management.



Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, President Newt

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.