The Alan Hardaker solution

IS it wrong to blame your cup exit on a man who has been dead for nearly 30 years? According to one report this morning, possibly not.

The Times has today suggested that former Football League secretary Alan Hardaker played a┬árole in Burnley’s Carling Cup semi-final defeat at Tottenham’s hands. Some achievement, you might think, for a man who died in 1980.

So let me explain. It’s all down to the League Cup’s rather curious away goals rule, inrtoduced by Hardaker in the late 1970s. In two-legged League Cup ties, away goals only count double (in the event of a tie) after extra time. That differs from European competition, where the away goals rule applies at 90 minutes.

Burnley, remember, heroically pulled back a 4-1 first-leg deficit on Wednesday, leading 3-0 at Turf Moor after 90 minutes. Had that been a European tie, they would have gone through on the away goals rule. As it was, the game went to extra-time.

Confusingly, had it still been 3-0 after 120 minutes, Burnley would have gone to Wembley under the League Cup’s away goals rule. Roman Pavlyuchenko and Jermain Defoe, however, had other ideas.

Are you still with me on this?

Few people connected with Burnley are making a big issue out of this. For one thing, they knew the rules at the start of the competition, and for another, it would a shame to let it overshadow a wonderful cup run which saw them knock out Fulham, Chelsea and Arsenal.

Furthermore, Owen Coyle’s men still have the FA Cup and a Championship play-off spot to go for, so there’s plenty more potential for magic in their extraordinary season.

Nonetheless, it’s not the first time the League Cup’s off-kilter away goals rule has caused a bit of a do. Ipswich were beaten by Birmingham in similar circumstances in the 2001 semi-final.

And some people have been genuinely baffled by the rule in the past. I remember one seasoned television commentator informing his audience during a League Cup tie in the mid-1990s that away goals did not count double in the competition – and therefore neither side needed to worry about them. This would have been fine, but for two facts: 1) He was wrong, as I’ve just pointed out above. 2) He was commentating on a third-round replay at the time, not a two-legged tie.

The particularly galling thing about the Football League’s away goals rule is that it used to apply in the play-offs too. As a result, third-placed Ipswich were eliminated by sixth-placed Bolton in the 1999 First Division play-off semi-finals. It made a mockery of the idea that the team with a higher league finish had an advantage by playing the second leg at home. The away goals rule was dropped from the play-offs altogether that summer.

It might be an idea to drop it from the League Cup semi-finals too. Now that penalty shoot-outs are an accepted way of deciding promotion play-off finals, having an away goals rule to decide a domestic cup semi seems an anachronism. Burnley certainly found the shoot-out more to their liking when they beat Chelsea on penalties in round four.

I wouldn’t be too harsh on Hardaker, though. If it wasn’t for him, there wouldn’t be a League Cup at all.

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