It’s a bit mad that we’re still playing this. It’s 2018 lads. We’ve abolished most of the slavery, public hangings, guillotine executions, child labour and general injustice that this world used to possess. In our own sport, we’ve seen the sense in introducing goal-line technology, one-man tip offs, the backpass rule, shaving foam for freekicks, harsher penalties for diving and we’ve had the audacity to tell VAR to fuck off. But somewhere along the line we’ve managed to forget one of our top priorities, to bin the League Cup.
We’re getting there, don’t get me wrong. The organisers of the competition (most likely the bulls on the front of the Carabao cans) have decided to get rid of extra-time, in what is hopefully a gradual devolution of minutes that will allow the whole competition to be played over one night by 2026. Royal Rumble style perhaps, last man standing out of the ninety-two managers in the Football League. We could all get behind that, especially if Allardyce somehow convinces a club to give him a job, which he almost certainly will do.
It’s all becoming a bit silly and predictable. The tournament is designed to find out who is the best side in knockout football in the somewhat elitist group that is the Football League. However, it has become, and has remained, a competition so far removed from this idealistic concept, that the lack of any sort of a review or revamp is at times baffling.
It’s the same script year on year. Not a round goes by without one of the big boys’ second-string sides crashing out, usually leaving two of them in the semis alongside a team lower down in the top division and an outfit from the Championship. “The four best teams in the Football League”, obviously. These two clubs from the top end who are still involved after Christmas are almost always there due to a mix of so few other teams giving a shit about the competition, and self-preservation strategies from managers.
There are two types. It can be a boss like Mourinho, looking to get an early piece of silverware on the board like he did in his first stint at Chelsea (2005) and in his maiden season with United (2017). Or as is often the case, a manager who is getting swept out from shore by the rapids of league football desperately tries to stay afloat by grabbing onto the metaphorical life buoy that is League Cup glory. I use the term glory very loosely.
While the same argument could perhaps be made about England’s other cup competition, it’s smaller brother has never quite had the same prestige nor the history that the F.A. Cup has. We can be fooled into thinking it’s a modern issue, just another consequence of the modernisation of the game. In reality, the Carabao Cup, as it’s now known, is an idea that has never quite got off the ground.
Many first division clubs didn’t even bother entering the tournament when it was first set up in 1960, waiting until the end of the decade to join when a European berth was granted to the competition’s winners. Entry became compulsory in the 1971/72 season. Despite this, Stoke City won the tournament in the spring of ’72. In the same season, they would go on to finish 17th in the top tier.
Three years later, Aston Villa beat Norwich at the showpiece final in Wembley. Both sides played their football in the second division that season. In 1986, Oxford placed 18th in the Football League. Celebrations of avoiding relegation were doubly celebrated as ‘The U’s’ also won what was then known as the Milk Cup.
From one perspective, it was the magic of the cup. From another perspective, it was a bunch of lads not being arsed playing more football. I’ve nothing against the stars of those Oxford and Stoke City sides, well in lads. Don’t let my cynicism in any way tarnish your well-deserved medals and your great days out at Wembley. Glory days they were and I wish I could’ve been there.
It shows though, that this has never properly succeeded like we all believe in our heads that it should’ve done. Most of us go about our lives having a mild disdain towards the competition, while never really questioning the point of its existence.
Tottenham’s home third-round tie with Bradford last season attracted a crowd of just under 24,000. Barely a quarter of the ground. That wouldn’t have even been a sell-out at Valley Parade. It brings up another issue that is the ever-increasing lack of romance around London’s pride and joy, Wembley. But that’s for another day, most likely the week before next year’s F.A. Cup Final.
And yet we all pretend that this is a tournament worthy to be mentioned alongside the League, the European Cup and the F.A. Cup as the fourth part of the quartet available to England’s best.
It’s not big-club snobbery either, not even from a man whose team are the champions-elect of England. Teams from twenty-one to ninety-two will rest and rotate in an attempt to stay as fresh as possible for an arduous 46-game campaign. The play-offs make it very rare for a club in the bottom three leagues to be in a Leicester-like position this early in the season, safe from relegation but not quite armed enough to mount a promotion assault. None of them see the League Cup as a realistic chance of silverware. Even Leeds United, who theoretically are the best of the rest at time of writing, left out big names as they exited the tournament in the second-round last month.
It’s Sky who makes us think that it all matters. The second they give up the rights to showing League Cup action, the public will give up any remaining interest in the competition too. They control what we see as important. They could make you pay to watch your Dad cutting the lawn on box office with enough advertising and sponsorship.
Fake news folks.
Lastly though, if they ever rename it back to ‘The Milk Cup’, I’d be bang up for investing a serious amount of time watching it. The idea that in 1981 a load of milkmen just came together and said “Right, we need some exposure lads, any ideas?” and that someone stood up and suggested sponsoring the League Cup as oppose to bus stop posters or television ads reminds you that we’re all just a bunch of chimps with weird ideas. Most of us though, don’t have the confidence to say them out loud.
All the best.