You’ll excuse me if I don’t get over-excited, but the Football League Cup (aka the Carling Cup, the Worthington Cup, the Coca-Cola Cup, and so on and so on) gets under way tonight, with Coventry City taking on Peterborough United at the Ricoh Arena. It’s live on Sky Sports! It must be a big match! I have to say that I’m struggling to find a justification for the continuing existence of the League Cup. I’m as much of a traditionalist as anyone (more than most, I’d wager), but this trophy is probably the least worthwhile of all the domestic trophies. The big clubs, of course, hate it. Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal regularly put out youth teams, and even the rest of the Premiership doesn’t seem that concerned by it. The lower division clubs don’t have much of a chance, because two legs in the first round gives the bigger clubs a chance of atoning for their mistakes in the second leg if they mess up first time around, and, if we’re going to patronise them with a belief in them “dreaming of a big day out at Cardiff/Wembley”, then we should point out that all teams in the lower divisions would rather have their big day out in the play-off finals, or in the Autoglass Trophy, which they’ve at least got a decent chance of making the final of.
It wasn’t ever thus, of course. It was created in the first place to give showpiece to those new-fangled floodlights that had started popping up at club grounds during the 1950s (although there are some that would argue that it was more to do with the Football League wanting to take some of the shine off the FA Cup with a cup competition of of their own), and, in it’s early days, was even more of a joke than it is now. Most of the big clubs refused point blank to enter until the Football League dangled the carrot of a Wembley final and a place in the UEFA Cup that they started to take it more seriously.
I guess that the twenty year period between 1967 and 1987 was the “Golden Era” of the League Cup. It was helped in it’s early days with two massive surprises in the final: QPR beat West Bromwich Albion in the first Wembley final, and Swindon Town beat Arsenal two years later (there’s a very funny chapter about it in Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch”). In the 1970s, it continued to be a big draw: a serious enough proposition for 100,000 crowds at Wembley throughout the decade and beyond. Liverpool won it four times in a row in the early 1980s, and well into that decade it remained one of the big events in the English football calendar. It also retained a capacity to surprise that the FA Cup had, to some extent, lost. In 1985, Norwich City and Sunderland competed the final, and both teams were relegated from Division One a few weeks later, and in 1988 Luton Town came from a goal down to beat Arsenal 2-1. It remains the only major trophy won by Luton Town, Oxford United, Leicester City, Birmingham City, Norwich City, Stoke City & QPR.
So, where did it go wrong for the League Cup? Well, there are several fingers of blame to point. First up, the play-offs. I remain less than convinced that this is a fair method for deciding promototion and relegation, especially when it means that there are only two automatic promotion places available in a twenty-four team league. They are, however, great box office, and have extended the interest in the season for countless clubs over the last fifteen years or so. They have, though, diminished the importance of the League Cup. Would you rather your team played in a play-off final or the League Cup final? It’s a no-brainer. Second up, the “Champions” League. Through extending to allow four teams in, any club with it’s eyes seriously trained on Europe aren’t interested in the UEFA Cup any more. It’s an also-rans competition. This has the effect that the big clubs don’t field anything near to full-strength teams, even in the latter stages of the tournaments. Of course, they don’t need to in order to win it. Having won a bye to the Third Round a few years back (they threatened to withdraw otherwise), the big clubs are still likely to dominate it more and more in the future, although their relative apathy has allowed the likes of Leicester, Middlesbrough, Spurs and Blackburn to win it in recent years.
When I ran my piece about the Charity Shield a couple of weeks ago, I came up with a plan to try and rescucitate it. I’m not sure that I can do the same for the League Cup. It sits between a rock and a hard place: not quite prestigious enough for everyone to take it seriously, yet not quite tinpot enough to give the smaller clubs a chance of winning it. Ironically, it’s been a victim of the League’s biggest success story of the last twenty years: the play-offs. In an era when the football calendar appears to be packed to over-saturation point, the biggest question isn’t really how to revive it, but whether it’s worth even trying.