Half a league onward

by Robert O'Connor

garry-monk-464307798It was to be an opportunity for fans to enjoy midweek action under the newly installed, glistening floodlights of England’s Football League grounds – a moment for the game’s new technology to help supplement burgeoning demand for constant, unending football.  That was the billing received by the League Cup shortly before it was shoe-horned into the season schedule back in 1960.

Later when clubs failed to soak up the enthusiasm being spewed by the league the lure of a European place was added to help bring the more stubborn top-flight want-aways on board, and by the late sixties all 92 League outfits were finding the time in their hectic agendas to turn out on a Tuesday and Wednesday to battle their way towards Wembley and beyond.

But time has a way with things. In 2013 the competition finds itself passing from currency, if it hasn’t already long passed, with a mandate for shaking up the game that has surely expired. As another week of third round matches rolls by the League Cup feels more than ever like a peevish inconvenience and the message being channelled from below and from above is clear. Change or be damned.

Steve Bruce exposed the working innards of the cup when he likened Hull’s 1-0 win over Huddersfield to watching paint dry, citing “no real cohesion, no real tempo because of what it was”.  And what it was, of course, was a match sheathed of its competitive edge by the listless approach of two managers who instilled that same lifeless energy into their players.

“I think both managers had just thrown 11 players out there and said ‘get on with it’,” Bruce concluded, in a frank admission of his own dereliction of duty towards his pre-match preparation, as though the attitude of clubs, players and managers is somehow divorced from the long decline of the competition. If the Hull manager expects that competitive bite to be spirited from thin air without any input from himself or those in his charge the season on Humberside is likely to be long and trying.

But therein lies the rub. If the professionals can’t be motivated to rouse the League Cup from its slumber than its attraction is going to be difficult to locate, as can be disinterred from the dour attendances figures at this week’s matches. Bruce’s Hull drew a little over 7,000 for their narrow victory whilst Southampton and Burnley also failed to crack double figures. Of the other Premier League sides in action only West Ham were watched by a stadium at more than half capacity. What Steve Bruce is saying with clumsy sound bites the supporters are reinforcing by simply staying away and saving their money.

The Cup, viewed from above but close enough to decipher the detail, has lost its relevance to those upon whose involvement it depends and season on season it seems to be pushed deeper into the footnotes of the game’s grand narrative. Certainly the most prominent headlines it has delivered in the last twelve months have revolved around ever more biting outbursts from players and managers who feel the competition is a strain on resources, most notably Andres Villas-Boas’ accusation that the Cup so intrudes on players’ schedules as to risk career-threatening injuries.

When Bradford City beavered their way to Wembley in February the country stopped to watch but the attention the Bantam’s received is the exception that marks the rule. The competition needs stories like Bradford’s to maintain a positive presence in the public consciousness but it cannot rely on them to sustain it. Nor can it invest much stock in a repeat performance this time around, with only one other team from outside the top-flight reaching the final since Birmingham City managed it in 2001.

It hardly needs restating that in the digital age of saturated coverage the competition has lost its mandate for keeping the game alive for fans between Saturdays, and the click of a mouse has long since replaced the clunk of the turnstiles in terms of when and how often supporters access football. By the same token the route into Europe is for most hopefuls blocked by the same big-spending obstructions that bar the way through other league and cup channels, and only for a shrinking minority does it still dangle a carrot worthy of long midweek trips between league fixtures.

As for change, it’s tricky to know what that could really mean for a competition that has stayed the same for half a century whilst everything around it has evolved dramatically. Stretching the competition out untill May would lighten the fixture load earlier in the year but would deter sides from putting out strong sides in the latter stages as crunch league fixtures rolled around, besides which extending the tournament’s run is unlikely to put the fire back in Steve Bruce’s belly on cold September nights.

It would be satisfying to argue that Bruce and his contemporaries shouldn’t need constant glamour outings to get them out of bed and to show some willing, but the blunt face of the matter is that without the game pulling together and getting behind the competition it will continue to make a limited contribution to the football calendar. In a ubiquitous digital culture where the final whistle never seems to sound and the floodlights rarely dim the midweek Cup feels ripe for pasture and a chance to reflect on headier days.

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