Putting fun back into football: An ode to the League Cup

by Tom Rhodes

It is not considered particular fashionable to declare support or affection for the League Cup. It has now long been discredited by many as a ‘Mickey Mouse’ trophy, a chore, an inconvenient and dis-interesting distraction from league affairs. It is the weak and ignored younger sibling to its more popular alpha-male older brother the FA Cup. However, if you ask me the League Cup has matured into fruitful adolescence and now could have its laboured older brother in a fight and has a better-looking girlfriend to boot.

The competition founded at the very start of the swinging sixties has a number of notable merits in its modern guise, not least its complete rebel without-a-pause insanity. The madcap entertainment it has served up in the opening two rounds of this season has been truly joyous. At the time of writing 59 games have been completed. In these opening ties a staggering 197 goals have been scored at a rate of 3.3 a game, there has been just one goal-less draw and 67 per cent of the games have seen both sides find the net. Further excitement has been provided by 9 penalty shoot-outs and there have been upsets-a-plenty with 19 matches being won by the team in a lower division.

Particular upsets and indeed games of note included Scunthorpe’s victory away at Championship Derby on penalties following a 5-5 draw in which they were twice 3 goals behind and with just four minutes remaining 5-3 down. In addition, Swindon’s 4-3 win away at Stoke was equally remarkable, bridging the gap of two divisions to record a thrilling victory. Their manager Paolo Di Canio entered into the crazy spirit of this cup competition kicking his striker up the backside after he had put the Robins two goals up. Although in fairness he does that kind of thing every week.

Furthermore, The League Cup’s ability to produce a shock is much more potent in the modern era than the FA Cup. Middlesborough, Blackburn, Leicester even Spurs and most recently Birmingham would all be trophy-less without the tangible opportunity of success the competition has provided. While Championship Cardiff City came within a penalty shoot-out of glory in last season’s competition and less fancied clubs such as Wigan and Bolton have competed in the final in the past decade.

Of course the FA Cup too has a long and famous history of this but that now appears to be exactly what it is, history. In the last 15 years Portsmouth are the only side who have won the competition and not finished the season in the Premier League top four. The FA Cup, despite being of reduced significance in the modern game still carries enough stature for the big clubs to seriously court it.

Despite its charm however, it is undoubted that the League Cup represents the lowest priority for most clubs in England. Yet, curiously, rather than be of detriment to the competition, it has instead served to create a fascinating dynamic, which has enriched the English football calendar. Initiated by Arsene Wenger, bigger clubs in particular have used the competition as a competitive arm of youth development. Admittedly, this may have had cynical motivations initially but, the process has now undoubtedly highlighted it’s worth and credibility. First-team regulars, fully aware that more important games lie just days around the corner, may simply go through the motions de-valuing both the quality of individual games and the competition.

Alternatively, young players, keen to impress, approach the games with a certain verve and vitality which breath life into potentially mundane fixtures. Whilst still displaying a propensity for tactical naivety which precipitates further shocks in turn allowing lower league clubs a greater chance of victory in both individual fixtures and moreover, the competition as a whole.

It is perhaps strange therefore, that these goal gluttonous and entertaining encounters in a competition, in which more than 20 or so clubs could count themselves as having a chance of winning, take place in front of rows of empty seats at deserted grounds around the country. Why is the one trophy we can actually win the one that interests us least? Of course the financial means of fans is tested to the limit ever more and understandably sacrifices have to be made. And in any case, especially in the earlier rounds maybe the lack of fans, in true harebrained League Cup style, is actually adding to the spectacle. The pressure is off, players haven’t got 20,000 home fans baying for the oppositions blood, for their blood. Exit from the competition will not be greeted with the same rage as a league defeat.

35 yards out? Why not have a shot? What is there to lose? There’s hardly anyone there to lambaste you, heck the shackles are off, just this once. The endless stream of screamers we have been treated to so far in the competition is arguably a by product of such thinking. So the next time you write off the League Cup as a bothersome bore look a little deeper. For your writing off a potential Wembley cup final, European qualification, a first trophy in years. But more importantly your ignoring the bucket loads of almost carefree fun it throws up, and in football that is truly the rarest of things.

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