Did Aston Villa breach the rules of the FA Cup?

On paper Aston Villa’s trip to Eastlands to face Manchester City in the FA Cup this week looked an intriguing tie. Gerard Houllier’s team appear transformed since their demoralising trip to east Manchester earlier in the season, and having put Blackburn to the sword at the weekend many thought they could push City all the way. These thoughts disappeared from the minds of the neutral and Villa fans alike when the Frenchman named his team.

In making eight changes to the side which won so emphatically on Saturday, Houllier effectively ruled out any chance of setting up a winnable quarter-final with Reading. Withdrawing Darren Bent was enforced due to his appearance for Sunderland earlier in the competition, but the decision to drop Ashley Young, Steward Downing and Marc Albrighton lead to many feeling the tie was lost before setting foot on the pitch.

The former Liverpool manager defended his decision by issuing the following statement after the match: “We started with two England players up front. There were also internationals in midfield and defence. I have quality throughout the squad and believe everybody should play.”

There is some credence to Houllier’s comments, as Gabriel Agbonlahor especially is struggling for form and needs some game time, and the likes of Michael Bradley need to be tested as to whether or not they can thrive at this level. However, looking at the rewards of a potential passage to the semi-final of the competition it seems a strange time to experiment.

There is also the issue of whether a fine should be imposed on the club for breaching the rules of the competition. Clause 15 of the FA Cup rules for 2010/11 states “each team participating in a match shall represent the full available strength of each competing club”. This is similar to the Premier League rule E.20, which both Wolves and Blackpool have fallen foul of in the last two seasons.

Houllier may claim the team named was amongst his strongest, but using a similar tactic to that which the Premier League used in fining Blackpool, it is clear it is not. The League looked at previous fixtures Ian Holloway’s team played, noting who was selected to come to an informed decision. Looking at Villa’s strong recent run and the players who have made this happen it is clear this team was not at full available strength and therefore in breach of the rules.

The Premier League may have set a dangerous precedent in fining so-called smaller clubs for using the full extent of their squads when Sir Alex Ferguson named the same XI for the first time in 165 matches this week. If the FA were to follow suit and take action against Villa, the difficult issue of forcing a team like Manchester United to field their strongest side against Crawley Town four days before an away Champions League tie in Marseille would have to be examined. This is something the FA may well be unwilling to do.

For Villa’s manager, Premier League safety might be this season’s over-riding priority, but the players may not entirely share his sentiments. Their neighbour’s recent triumph in the Carling Cup has proved that it isn’t just the top four sides who can claim some silverware. If the likes of Young had a Wembley final to look forward to, the prospect of staying in Birmingham may well start to look more appealing.

Houllier may be endearing himself to the Holte End faithful following a turbulent start, but for fans of one of only four English clubs to win the European Cup, there may be no better way for the manager to prove himself than bringing some silverware to the claret and blue side of Birmingham.

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