Sunday 1 March ~
Those with an interest in the League Cup’s continuing existence will be happy that this weekend’s final features two such major names as Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United. This will be the third successive year that the competition has ended in a game between two sides capable of generating interest in television coverage both at home and abroad, despite the apparent contempt the Premier League teams show the competition by consistently sending out second-string line-ups. For the clubs themselves, though, there must be mixed feelings about contesting this trophy. Another League Cup in the cabinet will not much thrill fans, players or chief accountants of either side. Strangely, this could mean that we’re in for a really decent game of football.
First, though, let’s consider why neither team is really bothered. Manchester United’s 2005-06 season was considered a failure because the only honour they won was the League Cup, a one-sided drubbing of Wigan Athletic chiefly remembered for a corny T-shirt tribute to the injured Alan Smith. This season, the Premier League title is looking like another increasing certainty, while the FA Cup, the Champions League and the already won World Club Cup will all be considered of vastly greater importance than the Carling kickabout. At Tottenham, meanwhile, the League Cup was last season’s prize, but this year they were supposed to move on to at least challenging for a Champions League place. A repeat triumph in the League Cup could be viewed as slightly embarrassing bearing in mind the lofty and long since discarded aims of pre-season.
The geezer’s geezer, Sir Harold Redknapp, has already stated with depressing predictability that his priority is Premier League survival, and has been treating that other unwanted competition, the UEFA Cup, like an August trip to Chesterfield in terms of giving the stiffs a stretch of the legs. Both he and Alex Ferguson, who considers next Wednesday’s league game at Newcastle “the priority”, will be more worried about what other clubs are doing in the league this weekend than ending up with a loser’s medal at Wembley. Knowing his penchant for deals, would Redknapp accept a devil’s pact sacrificing the League Cup in exchange for defeats for Blackburn, Stoke and Middlesbrough? Would Fergie shake Lucifer’s hot hoof on a deal to let Spurs retain the little silver pot in return for a favourable result at the Riverside? (Although given Liverpool’s current league form, he’d maybe decide there was no need to bother.)
Having established that neither side really wants to be there, let alone cares about winning the thing, we can now genuinely look forward to the game. While they may have experimented with youth so far, both managers will not be able to resist fielding strong sides on Sunday, although Ferguson has reportedly promised starts to Darron Gibson and Danny Welbeck. Redknapp, with UEFA Cup participation more or less thrown out with yesterday’s betting slips, can afford to field a full-strength team. It’s a final at Wembley, after all, and unless the devil really does knock on the door of either dressing room, well, we might as well try to win the thing now that we’re here, eh? The players, though, knowing that the consequences of losing a League Cup final are nothing like as serious as the consequences of dropping two points at Portsmouth, will hopefully be inclined to take risks and express themselves.
So let them attack, dribble and even enjoy themselves for once, and let us ignore any purists whining about lax defence. This year’s and last year’s semi-finals were almost all exciting, open games, and the external priorities of both teams could mean this final turns out likewise. Unburdened by a massive price tag, the League Cup’s near irrelevance on football’s calendar may also be its paradoxical saviour – when the financial stakes aren’t ridiculously high, the game is played with less fear, less fouling and more flair, especially in its latter stages. Although few of us would do more than shrug at its abolition, the unloved, almost abandoned League Cup is one of the few places where professionals still play the game as it should be. Ian Plenderleith