“If the FA Cup final is football’s Ascot, then the League Cup final is its Derby Day.” — Alan Hardaker
Now that the euphoria over my beloved Spurs’ Carling Cup win has abated somewhat, I thought it might be a good time to voice an idea as to how to salvage the dignity of a competition for which the general media, big clubs, fans of big clubs, and even some players (David James) have about as much respect as for the average fat paper-boy.
Sneering at the League Cup is, in actual fact, nothing particularly new. When the tournament was first introduced, or rather re-introduced, since the original trophy goes all the way back to 1895 — bringing the League Cup back was the brainchild of Sir Stanley Rous, member of the Post-War Reconstruction Committee, whose brief it was to regenerate British football at the end of the 2nd World War, the League Cup was originally conceived as a tournament whose pool of teams would consist of clubs knocked out of the early rounds of the FA Cup — entrance was not made compulsory, and a number of clubs, including Tottenham and Arsenal, refused to participate in the inaugural competition.
The first final was played out between Rotherham and Aston Villa, and the first leg was watched live by just 12,226 people at Milmoor. It was only the promise of increased TV revenue, as well as the concession of a European place to the victors, that persuaded many of the initial doubters to take part, and attendances later bloomed, with the final selling out Wembley stadium for decades.
However, although this year’s final was again a sell-out (as much due to the presence of two London clubs and the novelty factor of the rebuilt Wembley), attendances in the early rounds were far from burgeoning. The highest crowd in the first round (in which only Football League clubs compete) was the just under 14,000 who came to see Norwich destroy Barnet 5-2 at Carrow Road, with only two other matches breaking the 10,000 mark. The second round understandably attracted a few more spectators, although North East giants Middlesbrough and Newcastle were some way from filling their stadia, and only 5,440 witnessed Wigan’s home defeat to Hull City. In the third round, just 9,205 saw Blackburn take on Birmingham at Ewood Park, Luton Town continued to attract attendances of under 5,000 despite their giant-killing, and Manchester City and Fulham hosted crowds of around 20,000 and 10,000 respectively — hardly impressive considering the capacities. The fourth round all-Premiership match-ups between Portsmouth and Blackburn and Bolton and Manchester City were played out to only 11,788 and 15,510; whilst a Quarter-final between Blackburn and Arsenal drew only 16,207 spectators! Even the first leg of the North London derby between Arsenal and Spurs was some 8,000 fans off a sell-out.
What are the problems with the trophy in its current format? The drawbacks seem obvious. The early rounds offer up ties that are generally unappetizing even for League One and Two clubs, with the exception of local derbies, and the Premiership stranglehold over the competition leads Football League fans scratching their heads as to the point of the whole thing. It has been over 30 years since a team outside of the top flight won the competition, and the cliché romance (Cupsets) associated with the F.A. Cup have never been transplanted onto the League Cup trophy. All-Premiership ties fail to attract large attendances as clubs often have other priorities — if the F.A. Cup is not taken seriously, the League Cup has little chance — clubs are guaranteed to meet each other later in the season, therefore eliminating the sensation of excitement/novelty, and prohibitive prices continue to factor out the casual fan who might not get, or might not be able to afford, a seat for a league encounter.
Is the League Cup really worth rescuing? The short answer is no, not in its present format. For all parties involved, it is more an inconvenience, that is until the big clubs that are having a bad season decided to unite around it and assign it value (Chelsea, United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Spurs have all done so in recent years). It is, at best, a stop gap.
However, I have written elsewhere that the League Cup plays an important role in the development of youngsters, both local and imported, in British football. England is one of the few countries in world football to possess two “major” domestic cup competitions, and as such, offers one more guarantee of first-team experience for young players up against seasoned internationals in jam-packed competitive squads. One only has to look to the excellent use put to the Carling Cup by Arsene Wenger in recent years to take note of the trophy’s useful potential.
My first thought when redesigning the trophy was to impose an age limit on players. That way, fans would have a greater motivation to go to matches, knowing that the Carling Cup offered a “sneak preview” at future teams. However, the FA Youth Cup already exists, as does the Reserve League. So, I asked myself, how can one place an emphasis on youth development, without encroaching upon Youth Cup territory? And presto, it came to me. The 5+6 rule.
Sep Blatter’s controversial 5+6 rule focuses on the importance of home-grown talent in team selection. My idea differs from his in that the focus is on a mixture of youth and experience. In my opinion, one way to return the importance to the Carling Cup would be to create a rule whereby teams would have to field at least 4 players under the age of 22, but with a minimum of, let’s say, 4 squad members over the age of 25, or with a certain number of league starts behind them. The result being that the Carling Cup becomes the ideal scenario in which young players are bred and integrated into the first-team set-up, where Cesc Fabregas proves that he can play with Henry & Co. and earns his first Premiership starts in the process.
How else can we add some spice to a moribund competition? Another idea would be to return the competitive element to the trophy and encourage upsets by imposing some sort of limits on the players Premiership clubs may or may not select. Forcing Tottenham, Liverpool and Arsenal to field a side with no more than 100 league starts between them, or giving each club just one “regular”, would certainly foment the idea that the trophy was meaningless for Premiership clubs, other than as a testing ground, but it would prevent these clubs from then bringing in big stars against lower-league opposition when they realize that their challenges on other fronts are flailing. Liverpool’s 2-1 triumph over Cardiff City at Anfield, for example, might have ended quite differently without the contribution of Gerrard, Carragher and Crouch. Imagine Gerrard martialling a side composed entirely of youth players, and think what an occasion this could be for the young hopefuls.
The final thing that needs to be done to curb falling attendances is quite simple: reduce ticket prices. I seem to remember a scheme being piloted last season to encourage fans to flock to the FA Cup: £5 tickets and free coaches for many away supporters. Imagine paying £5 to watch a hybrid of first-teamers and up-and-coming stars playing against a highly-motivated league side who are actually in with a chance of winning, and you have my idea of a worthwhile trophy.
And if all that fails, we could always move it to Singapore, eh Scudamore?