Wednesday 27 August ~

Last night’s League Cup tie between Coventry and Newcastle served up that old favourite the five-goal thriller, showcasing back-and-forth cup football at its best. A lower-division team gave a Premier League side a floodlit fight in front of a raucous and enthusiastic crowd. It seemed important to Kevin Keegan too, and afterwards he restated what everyone already knows: Newcastle won’t win the Premier League, so why not aim for the League Cup instead? “We haven’t won anything for a long time, far too long,” he said on Setanta Sports with the wistful air of a man who hasn’t held a decent trophy since lifting the 1979 Bundesliga shield.

It was reassuring to see that someone still values the competition, albeit as a consolation fallback trophy rather than someone defiantly shouting: “I would love it, absolutely love it, if we won the Carling Cup.” But looking beyond the ‘tie of the round’, Tuesday’s attendance figures were downright depressing. Coventry were just one of two home teams out of 18 to draw a crowd higher than their last League gate. The other team was Rotherham United, whose attendance of 5,404 was a couple of thousand more than they attracted against Chester last Saturday, presumably the result of a devout travelling Wolves support. Only Ipswich’s local derby with Colchester (just over 17,000, and a big improvement on their first-round tie against Orient, which pulled in a paltry 1,477) came close to its normal home figure, while elsewhere teams like Bolton, Cardiff, Leeds, Preston, QPR, Reading, Watford and Wigan drew crowds ranging from twice to four times less than at their last home League match.

Cheltenham and Hartlepool, meanwhile, both welcomed Premier League opposition, but their games against Stoke City and West Brom respectively saw lower crowds (significantly so in Hartlepool’s case) than for previous league encounters with Swindon Town and Stockport County. There wasn’t even an English team on TV in the Champions League to explain it all away. And so, no matter what your views are on the need for Wor Kev to squeeze a dab of oil on the rusty lock to Newcastle’s trophy cupboard, it increasingly seems that the League Cup is a competition years beyond its sell-by date. The big teams don’t care, of course, but neither do the fans, even those of lower division teams who might be expected to welcome a higher calibre of opposition and a change from the humdrum routine of league play.

True, the loss of interest is partly the fault of top sides not bothering to risk their biggest stars, but you can hardly blame the participants in European competition for giving first-team action to youngsters and reserves in such a crowded calendar, while sparing multi-million pound players the risk of a damaged shin from an eager left-back at Whaddon Road. Whether we like it or not, wealthier competitions now take priority, and it’s a wonder Manchester United and Chelsea even bother to enter a team, let alone take it seriously enough to get to the final, as they have in recent years. That they can still progress with a second choice line-up is further reflection of the competition’s diminished status and the ridiculously wide talent gap. And even when there’s a giantkilling, it’s not quite so glorious when a third division team knows that it only beat the stiffs and, in all probability, did the likes of Sir Alex a backhanded favour.

The League Cup is like the stalwart old pal you keep in touch with out of habit, even though you’ve both outgrown each other. Truth be told, you wouldn’t much notice if you stopped hearing from him. It would be hard to see the tournament laid to rest when it’s been a part of England’s football landscape for the best part of half a century, and also because it can still produce exciting games, as Newcastle and Coventry showed. But if, broadly speaking, most clubs and fans at all levels cannot be bothered with the competition, who does that leave who actually can? Newcastle’s desperation for any sort of silverware is no longer justification enough. Ian Plenderleith

Comments (5)
Comment by ericcantona 2008-08-27 11:30:19

They should make the League Cup a competition for Football League teams only as opposed to allowing Premier League teams to enter. Sure, they would have to remove the UEFA cup spot for the winners of the trophy but it would be a refreshing tournament for all teams and, with the increased liklihood of success and a possible trip to Wembley, surely attendances would rise.

As for that extra UEFA Cup spot, it would of course go to a Premier League team; how about a play off between the four sides that finish just outside of the current UEFA Cup spots; now that there is no Intertoto it would be a little pre-season play off to decide our final UEFA Cup qualifier, add some spice to pre season and give teams that are 11th or 12th in mid April something to aim for (a play off spot).

Comment by loppy 2008-08-27 15:04:29

The league cup does need something. I beleive I read recently that the competion was mainly introduced as a comprimise to try to prevent clubs joining the new fangled European competions in the 60's, that the FA were against. I think its safe to say that the European ship has well sailed!

Ive always considered that an amalgamation of the English and Scottish league cups would increase interest in the competion both sides of the border, as well as giving us a final regular season answer as to weather the old firm could cut it in England. I would also be in favour of including the N. Irish and Welsh club teams, with the final venue rotating around the 4 countries national stadia, but I suppose given the current climate within the respective FA's current stance regarding the 2012 Olympic team this would be very unlikely. Still, a Man Utd - Rangers final at the Millenium anyone?

Comment by E10 Rifle 2008-08-27 17:34:54

As a point of information, the Ipswich-Orient crowd was misreported by PA. It was 10,477, which is probably above-par for that sort of game, though I wish I hadn't been among them

Comment by Fredorrarci 2008-08-27 18:28:42

I think the League Cup was intended as part of an overhaul of the League, the main part of which involved a change to five divisions of twenty teams each. The League Cup was intended to make up the shortfall in fixtures. However, the clubs rejected the bulk of the package (including the five-division structure) but stuck with the League Cup idea. I'm pretty sure the European ship had already sailed by 1960.

Comment by Janik 2008-08-29 22:53:46

A major part of the problem for the League Cup isn't Man United and Chelsea resting players. It's that almost every Premier League or Championship club will do it. You chose Whaddon Road as your example. Stoke, who travelled there, made 10 changes from their Premier League side against Villa. And they still won. Which shows the problem. But then Stoke's reserves had the 8 of the regulars from the side that finished 2nd in the Championship last season, so it's really no suprise that they were too strong for Cheltenham. Which emphasises the problem, that Premiership reserve teams, even at clubs odds-on to be relegated, can have so many good players stockpiled in them.

Tony Pulis' justification for the team he picked was two-fold;
i) It worked. Hard to argue with that.
ii) He needed to give his fringe players a competitive game, as the reserve league hasn't begun as yet.

The second one is fascinating. It's almost as if the Premier League is encouraging teams to play their reserves in the League Cup by delaying the start of the reserve league. Surely they can't be so cynical as to try and undermine another competition just so it doesn't detract some interest from their own bloated product.

It's not just the League Cup, of course. Attendances in the FA Cup also seem on average to be below those of league games. Probably because for all but a handful of clubs there is the thought that they have no hope of winning it (see Dave Kitson's comments about Reading last season), so unless you get a plum tie at home to a Premier League club that might allow a little short-term glory, then there is little point in bothering. Ties against clubs from your own division, or even worse, a home tie against a team from a lower league are merely potential embarassments with no long term gain in evidence.
It will be interesting to see if last seasons suprises give that competition more impetus, but I think it will need another couple of years like that in quick succesion before people return to the belief that any decent side from the top two divisions might win it.

Related articles

Bobby Robson film offers smiles, tears and plenty of fond memories
Embed from Getty Images // Watching the elegantly put together More Than A Manager highlights why Robson was so revered by fans, players and...
Old Too Soon, Smart Too Late: My Story by Kieron Dyer
with Oliver Holt Headline, £20Reviewed by Gavin BarberFrom WSC 377, July/August 2018Buy the book Kieron Dyer comes across in these pages as...
Any Given Saturday by Shay Given
Sport Media, £20Reviewed by Jonathan O’BrienFrom WSC 376, June 2018Buy the book To most Ireland fans, Shay Given will be remembered...