Kill it off?
Paul Scholes is not most people’s idea of a rebellious prima donna, so when the mild-mannered Manc refused to play in a match against Arsenal you knew something was up. This season he’s been played out of position, left on the bench and generally messed around as his manager attempts to accommodate Ruud van Nistelrooy and Juan Sebastian Veron. All accepted without a murmur. “But for God’s sake,” you can imagine him telling Sir Alex, “not the bloody League Cup!”
A competition so worthless that it keeps changing its name (from Milk to Coca-Cola to Worthington Cup – the sponsor’s beverage is the only thing about it that has got stronger) produced a match so pointless it was played a day after both teams had appeared in the league. Did Arsenal’s 4-0 win mean the fortunes of Highbury had at last eclipsed those of Old Trafford? Yeah, right. As an Arsenal-supporting friend observed, how seriously can you take a competition in which Sylvain Wiltord scores a hat-trick?
Three years ago Highbury witnessed a similar big-name “upset”, when Chelsea won 5-0 in the same competition. But much as I’d like to crow about the Blues’ success, it’s a result that will always carry an invisible asterisk alongside it indicating that it was in fact a glorified reserve team fixture.
Do we need an FA Cup Lite? Somehow those footballing minnows, such as Italy, Spain and Germany, have managed to struggle along without a second, second-rate cup. Only England seems to think the winners of its low-rent knockout tournament deserve to get into the UEFA Cup.
There are too many games as it is, and for a player at a Premier League club those in the League Cup are clearly the most expendable. If we are going to keep a 20-team top division, loading a second cup on top is frankly perverse. As for tradition, if you’re going to get misty-eyed about a competition then save it for the FA Cup, which deserves it. The oldest football competition in the world has well over a century of history to call on. The League Cup, by contrast, was cooked up in the 1960s by the old robber baron of the Football League, Alan Hardaker, to try to upstage its distant ancestor and generally piss off the League’s eternal rivals at Lancaster Gate. Despite eventually managing to get its final into Wembley (and now Cardiff), the League Cup still struggles for legitimacy.
The only real argument in its favour is that it offers lower division clubs the chance to make a bit of extra money. But a cup run should be a bonus, not part of the budget. Numerous clubs have nearly gone to the wall over the past ten years despite the League Cup’s existence and more will experience the same fate or worse in the next ten unless club finances are put on a more sustainable footing. The League Cup is an irrelevance.
It’s not as if the supporters of lower division clubs are exactly gagging for more hot League Cup action. To take one example, the 4,866 who watched Blackpool’s second round tie against Premiership Leicester represented, at the time of writing, the Seasiders’ lowest crowd of the season, barring only the visit of Wigan in the previous round and the victory over Stoke in the LDV Vans Trophy. When Brighton took on Southampton at the Withdean stadium in the same round, the attendance was lower than for any league game, including such crowd-pullers as Wigan, Colchester and Brentford.
The League Cup’s time is up. Back in the 1980s, during the European ban and before the TV bonanza, the Full Members Cup also became part of the football calendar, boasting a “showpiece” final and offering clubs the chance to rake in some extra money. You might even argue that Chelsea’s 5-4 victory over Manchester City was one the great Wem-bley finals. But, really, who cares?
Likewise, if the League Cup disappeared tomorrow, in a year’s time would anybody really miss it? Chris Taylor
As sure as night follows day, the opening rounds of the League Cup will be greeted with the familiar moans from Premiership clubs on having to take part in a competition which no one cares about. Attendances are habitually low and many clubs field weakened teams. What’s the point of it all?
The point is, I feel, being missed. The League Cup is the third component in the triangle of important domestic competitions. Of course it cannot ever hope to match the prestige or tradition of the FA Cup, nor generate the glittering wealth which the elite 20 per cent of clubs enjoy courtesy of the Premiership gravy train. But the League Cup does offer all the drama and excitement of knockout football.
And, though the cup is seldom lifted by a club from outside of the Premiership (no matter how much they protest that they’re not interested), Nationwide clubs have the opportunity of achieving some short-term success away from the often mundane slog of league football. Of course a good cup run can offer more than glory or plaudits – it also brings in hard cash.
Far from living up, or rather down, to its “Worthless” image, the League Cup has an easily quantifiable value – some £80 million to the Nationwide clubs. The bottom line is that the competition helps the league’s most vulnerable clubs where they need it most. In the pocket. Indeed, all clubs owe the League Cup a debt of gratitude. As the first major competition to attract a sponsor, it was an innovator and trailblazer. Its various naming rights sponsorships may have made the road to multi-million pound shirt deals easier to travel for the very clubs who pour scorn on the competition.
Opponents of the competition make much of the supposedly low crowds and weakened teams but, like the most fanciful of urban myths, those assumptions are built upon half truths and exaggeration. Last season, the 154 matches of the League Cup were watched by over 1.5 million fans, giving an average attendance of 9,749 per game. During the same season, only 300,000 more supporters watched the FA Cup from the first round onwards, with a match average of 11,951. Given the massive media exposure afforded to the FA Cup, the figures for its much-maligned and ridiculed League counterpart stack up very strongly, especially for a competition played almost exclusively in midweek.
As for the Premiership clubs putting out shadow teams, in the past couple of seasons only Manchester United and Arsenal have routinely fielded seriously weakened line-ups. Of course, other teams may rest one or two players as well, but for the most part the line-ups fielded by the big boys are representative sides.
An exception was the recent third round meeting between the two above-mentioned clubs, a match ridiculously scheduled for just 24 hours after each team had been in Premiership action. Needless to say, the starting sides bore little resemblance to those usually employed by each club, as everyone knew in advance would be the case, yet still more than 30,000 people turned out to watch the match. Why? Because this was cup football and the fans want their clubs to win the silverware.
That a European place is up for grabs for the cup winners, for the moment at least, merely adds gloss to the achievement of winning. The joy and pride felt by Liverpool players at lifting the cup last season was no less intense then when they won the UEFA Cup. Winning a trophy is a magical experience reserved for a minority, and the League Cup at least gives the chance of glory to the Nationwide and jobbing Premiership clubs.
Scrapping the League Cup would further divide the English game, with even more emphasis being placed on the almighty Premiership. As for the League Cup not being worth winning, just ask anyone who claims to believe this when their own team has reached the final. I wonder how many would still hold the same opinion? Craig Ellyard
From WSC 179 January 2002. What was happening this month
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