It’s the end of August. This means, of course, that it’s time for our annual dissection of what is wrong with the League Cup. This year’s Second Round has already been played, and it has already provided a couple of surprises, including Northampton Town beating Bolton Wanderers and Rotherham United knocking out Wolverhampton Wanderers on penalties at Don Valley Stadium. One can’t help but suspect, however, that supporters of those bigger clubs won’t be too bothered about these results should their teams win at the weekend.
That is the sad truth of the League Cup at the moment. It used to be that the biggest clubs didn’t care much for it. Now, the fact of the matter is that no-one really cares much about it, and the proof is in the half-hearted attendances posted this week. The crowd of just over 19,000 at the match between Coventry City and Newcastle United was the biggest of the round, but this was the exception rather than the rule. The crowd for the match between Wigan Athletic and Notts County was 4,100. Less than 3,500 people saw Hartlepool United beat West Bromwich Albion out of the competition. Maybe no-one cares about the League Cup at all.
The bitter irony is that the biggest clubs, in spite of their not caring about the League Cup, still have the best chance of winning it. Arsenal’s youth team reached the semi-finals last year. Ultimately, the gap in quality is so great that this can be done. Even when they fail, it doesn’t really matter that much. In recent seasons, Southend United and Coventry City have both knocked Manchester United out of the competition, but it hardly affected United’s reputation beyond the next match. No club’s reputation is going to stand or fall on the League Cup. Few other Premier League clubs seem to take it that much more seriously, perhaps fancying their chances of getting into Europe better through finishing just below the Champions League clubs in the league table.
How, then, do we revonate the League Club, considering that the Football League is hardly likely to abandon the competition after over forty years? Well, firstly, it is surely time to ditch the Big Four. The League Cup offers Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool nothing whatsoever, apart from the opportunity to give some of their very youngest players a run out and flex their muscles at Wembley ahead of the run in to the domestic season. Trimming them out of it would ease their fixture congestion slightly (although it probably wouldn’t stop them complaining about fixture congestion, which is a subtly different thing) , and wouldn’t damage them in anyway. Taking this a step further, it might be an idea to bar all teams that have been managed to qualify for the UEFA Cup, as well. The UEFA Cup place that comes with win it is the biggest single draw for the League Cup and, for the following season, potentially the biggest money-spinner. Barring clubs that are already feeding from the trough of European football would, just maybe, create a little more equality within the Premier League.
It would probably be a step too far to bar all Premier League clubs from the competition. The League Cup can cope with out six or seven clubs, but barring them all would probably be the death knell for it. The argument that Premier League clubs are no longer members of the Football League is a misleading one. Removing all Premier League clubs from it would almost certainly mean the end of that all-important European place. I would suggest that the final should be moved back to a later point in the season. The current final date, in February, is simply too early. It would be better off as it used to be, in March, acting as the beginning of the end of the season.
Nothing, then, too radical. The single matches with penalties on the night are a good innovation, but playing matches so early is not, and if we are going to bother keeping the League Cup at all, we might as well have it as a means for somebody else to win something. If we can’t increase interest in the competition at all, though, one has to start wondering whether it’s worth playing it at all.