Did he mean it, then, or was he merely to trying to cover his embarrassment? Neil Warnock is, of course, what is commonly referred to as a “character”. He can, however, be a walking contradiction at times, and it often feels as if, just as you’re in danger of warming to him, he will say something as if to remind you of why many supporters call him by an anagram if his name which is, well, fairly obscene. Rochdale, who beat his team on Tuesday night, would certainly have cause to feel slighted by comments which crossed a line into the realms of being disrespectful.
There is a further irony to Warnock’s comments which may not be lost on the supporters of Queens Park Rangers. It was the League Cup that brought their club its only major trophy for its one hundred and twenty-nine years of existence, and Rangers supporters will need little reminding of that day, or that the manager who masterminded a sensational win against West Bromwich Albion while the club was in the Third Division was Alec Stock. What Stock would make of a game in which securing fourteenth or fifteenth place in the league was more important than having a pop at actually winning a trophy is anybody’s guess. This sort of attitude and the culture in which it is allowed to flourish is one of modern football’s more understated perversities.
The League Cup has been in a state of slow decay for some years now, and this is a process which has been facilitated by many different groups within the English game. The likes of Warnock are, of course, to blame for this, but we must also look to supporters that ridicule it and don’t turn out to matches in it and a media which perpetuates the notion that the Champions League and Premier League are all that really “matter” in modern football. In view of all of this, it could be argued that Birmingham City winning the competition and subsequently getting relegated was one of the worst things that could have happened to the prestige of the tournament, but even this, it could well be argued, is more a matter of image than substance.
It is worth noting that Birmingham City only played three League Cup matches – the two-legged semi-final and the final itself – after the start of December last season. Would Alex McLeish really have blamed the club’s relegation from the Premier League on matches played the previous autumn? In an interview with The Guardian at the time of his transfer from Birmingham to Wolves, the former Birmingham player Roger Johnson telling refused to blame his team’s relegation on the cup win, stating that, “The [League] Cup was fantastic and thoroughly deserved but I won’t blame that for us going down, that wasn’t the reason at all.” Ultimately, the truth of the matter is that the fatigue argument feels like a straw man, but even this, in terms of the broader debate on the subject, is irrelevant. The damage to the reputation of the competition through the constant undermining of it has become self-perpetuating. As such, Warnock is probably best regarded as a symptom of this malaise rather than a cause.
All of this leads us to one probably predictable question: what can be done, if anything, to revive the League Cup? It’s schedule has been moved to satisfy Premier League whims, there is a reward in the form of a place in Europe and the final is at Wembley. We know that clubs field under-strength teams in it and that sanctions for doing this are non-existent. It would seem that the carrot doesn’t work, and that the stick will not be beaten hard enough to make any difference to the clubs that can’t be bothered with it any more. Even if there were grounds to believe that the likelihood of greater rewards or sanctions for clubs that cast it to one side would be effective, it would require the involvement of one of – and more likely both of – the FA and the Premier League to enforce the action required to make clubs step into line, and here the League Cup is on a particularly sticky wicket, because both of these organisations run tournaments of their own which are direct competition to it.
To this extent, the Football League Cup is an anachronism. The clubs that most likely will win the tournament haven’t been members of the Football League for almost two decades and attitudes have altered massively over this time. It seems unlikely that the Football League will drop the tournament and, on recent form, it seems likely that any further revamping of it will at best leave it close to where it is, but will more likely even further devalue it. There is, sad to say, no quick fix for the League Cup – English football has already left it behind. There are, if we are to be realistic, two options. The first is to allow it to bumble on, with expectations of what sort of effort that clubs might make for it being tempered. The second, meanwhile, would be to put it to sleep, where it can rest in peace with the likes of The Anglo-Italian Cup, The Full Members Cup and The Watney Cup in the graveyard of abandoned football trophies. For all of its faults, many of which seemed to be imposed upon it, the latter option still doesn’t feel very attractive.
In the meantime, the competition will stumble on, unloved by many and treated as an absolute irrelevance by many of those for whom it arguably represents the best chance of winning anything or getting into European competition. Perhaps Neil Warnock wants his tombstone to read, “Managed Queens Park Rangers to fourteenth place in the Premier League for three years in a row”, or whatever. Alec Stock’s reads that he managed Queens Park Rangers to their only ever major trophy, and if Warnock maintains keeping the league as his sole ambition, there can be little doubting who will still be the most fondly remembered by QPR supporters in years to come. Pragmatism has its place in modern football, but it often feels that this new realism is sucking the life of our game.
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