The common consensus is that Sunday’s Capital One Cup final was a great advert for the English game. Indeed, it was a tie played with idiosyncratic English intensity, contested with admirable sportsmanship, backed by fervent support and punctuated with moments of breathtaking quality.
Look a little deeper, however, and a depressingly familiar tale emerges.
At kick-off, Sunderland you could get 9/1 on a Sunderland win. Indeed, 1-0 Borini went as long as 250/1 – to put that into context, you can get the same odds today on Spurs winning the title.
This team dismissed as rank outsider is no minnow. With average gates of over 40,000 and now in their 7th consecutive Premier League season, today’s Sunderland are a far cry from the oft-recalled giant killers of 1973.
Today’s league is, of course, a different beast too. Man City’s bench alone cost more than Sunderland’s entire Premier League spend. More damagingly, Sunderland’s brightest performers each season are typically loanees, the crumbs from football’s top table who depart as soon as they’ve caught their parent club’s eye.
Dare to dream
This dispiriting picture tells you a great deal about why Sunderland fans taken to their cup run with such abandon, daring to dream in their thousands. While outsiders raised a collective eyebrow when Mackems claimed to favour a cup win over survival, it should be no surprise that veterans of spirit-sapping relegation battles no longer see survival as being an end in itself.
For clubs such as Sunderland, the League v Cup dilemma starts way before the final. While the big boys have the luxury of fielding entirely separate teams for separate competitions, the rest of football have to play calculated risks, balancing the frivolity of a cup run with the hard-nosed finance of the league.
West Ham’s FA Cup hari-kari earned them opprobrium from all quarters, but also gave them space to quietly rise out of the relegation quagmire. Sunderland, meanwhile, have dedicated an increasing amount of first team resources at their dual cup runs, and only time will tell if increased morale will overcome unavoidable fatigue. The spectre of Wigan looms large.
A League Cup for the 92
So, what’s the answer?
When it comes to leveling football’s wider playing field, the genie is very much out of the bottle. Measures such as Financial Fair Play are doomed to fail, simply because the clubs dwarf their ruling bodies. If the big clubs don’t want it, it will not happen.
The League Cup, however, has the potential to become a trophy that’s genuinely aspirational for English football’s unofficial ‘second tier’. It can and should mean much more than simply a “statement of intent” for the top four. It can become a means to ringfence a little piece of fair play for everyone to enjoy.
Each club could be asked to nominate a 16-strong League Cup squad, with a provision to make ‘transfers’ in the event of injury or suspension. The likely scenario is that the big clubs would nominate a second string, leaving their heavy hitters free for Champions League duties.
The rest of the league structure then have the incentive of a trophy that is significantly more obtainable to advance in. Of course, a second string City could still romp to victory, and the gulf between the Premier League and the league proper is still vast. However, the integrity of the cup can be protected from the spectacle of the big boys keeping the big guns under wraps until the biggest battle. No more will the League Cup be dismissed as a nuisance until early March; no more will we have to hear the collective cry of “what is the League Cup for?”.
English football needs this. Cup wins by Wigan and Swansea are sticking plasters over a gaping wound. The accepted order of things is that success belongs to a lofty few, and with each season the gap grows ever wider. Oil-backed Goliaths swat away plucky Davids at will. The League Cup for City is a fraction of their true aim – a double, a treble, a quadruple. For Sunderland, it would have meant everything.
Though historically derided, the League Cup could become the tournament that stands for the many and not the few. And if it did, football fans can start dreaming of a game that’s measured in trophies, not TV deals.
By Paul Fisher