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