It’s that time of the year again, when conversation turns to the apparent devaluation of the Football League Cup. It seems as though this discussion has been coming up this time of year for over a decade now. I remember when Arsenal made a big deal of playing their younger players in the League Cup and how some people saw that as disrespectful. I’m rather ambivalent about the League Cup. On one hand, I would like to see it treated with a bit more respect. On the other hand, I can understand why most football clubs treat it as an afterthought.
In the modern game, I think there are too many games played. I’m not going to ramble on at length about how back in the day players would play three times a week on muddy fields kicking a ball that weighed three stone. The fact is, the game has evolved and the athleticism involved now means it is difficult for players to perform at their peak for forty, sometimes fifty-plus games a season. Squad rotation is a major part of football now and the League Cup is seen as the poor relation compared to the F.A. Cup and the normal league campaign.
So, do the major clubs actually treat the League Cup as an afterthought?
Since Sheffield Wednesday beat Manchester United in 1991, there have been twenty-seven League Cup finals.
Since 1991, by my count, there have been twelve different winners.
Manchester United (five)
Manchester City (three)
Aston Villa (two)
Assuming I have my Sheffield Wednesday knowledge up to date, we are the last club to win the League Cup from outside the top division, in 1991. So for all the talk of the competition being “devalued”, it has been won by a top flight team every season for almost three decades. Out of the previous twenty-seven finals, nineteen have been won by those clubs typically expected to challenge for the top-four Premier League places; Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs.
Is it just a case of all clubs devaluing the League Cup and those clubs with the most strength in depth having more success? Possibly. It is sad to see the cup thought of in such a way. The question is how to make the cup more attractive; how to make it more exciting. I have a few ideas, some of which are pure fantasy, and possibly border on the absurd. Others, I think, are more grounded in reality and may help shake things up in a positive way.
Make it purely a League Cup
Make the League Cup a competition for clubs in the Championship, League One and League Two only. The early rounds of the Cup would be regionalised and played before the normal League season starts. This would also replace the EFL Trophy.
The Premier League clubs would no longer have to compete, meaning the top-six clubs would not be distracted from fighting for the top four places and the other fourteen clubs can continue to fight to avoid relegation.
With only one domestic Cup competition open to these clubs, the F.A. Cup may regain some of its’ prestige as well.
The League Cup would no longer be available as a consolation prize to Premier League Clubs who fail to win the Premier League or the F.A. Cup.
Football League clubs will no longer get the chance to be drawn against a Premier League team’s reserves in the early rounds of the League Cup.
There is also the question of the prize. It’s no longer sufficient for clubs to win a competition just for the prestige. There has to be some tangible reward. I doubt that the powers-that-be would sign off giving a European place to the winners of a Cup that only second-tier clubs can win.
A substantial cash prize would be an idea, but the money has to come from somewhere and no major sponsor would throw money at a competition that the Manchester clubs or Chelsea, Spurs or Liverpool are not entering.
Another, out of the box, idea would be to give the winners of the League Cup a points bonus in the division they are in for that season. I’m not in favour of this idea as it would tinker with the League format too much. Although there would be some novelty and amusement in seeing the League Cup winners clinch the last play-off spot due to a points bonus for winning the Cup.
Overall, without the star power of the Premier League or the tangible reward of a European place the League Cup does not have much appeal when compared with the match-to-match slog of the regular League.
Idea Rating: Poor
Create a joint Anglo-Scottish League Cup
At present the only way English and Scottish clubs can meet is in Europe. If a joint League Cup was created it would be interesting and novel. The new Anglo-Scottish Cup would have to be regionalised at first in the early rounds. With absolutely no disrespect intended, no one wants to see Yeovil travel to Elgin midweek for a Cup game. However, as the rounds progress we could see fixtures such as Hibs v Preston, Hearts v Sheffield Wednesday, Rangers v Spurs, Celtic v Manchester City. All fixtures that are fresh, new and exciting for the fans of those clubs.
The prestige of winning a Cup that is open to both England and Scotland would be great for a club’s reputation. If the format was correctly thought out, with early rounds being regionalised, it would spur teams on to get to the later rounds when the two countries get drawn against each other.
There would likely be huge sponsorship interest which would create a large pot of money. This could be filtered down through the leagues. In my, somewhat hopeful world, the bigger clubs would agree to share the money much more generously with the lower league clubs in Scotland and England.
Logistically, this could be problematic but that is an issue that can be worked through. This would replace the Scottish League Cup and English League Cup. The question remains over what happens to the “spare” European qualification place.
Although this would be a great idea for many clubs, I can see why some clubs would rather not do it. As things stand, Celtic have a virtual monopoly on Scottish football. If this went ahead, they are much less likely to win the League Cup. However, if marketed right it could be a huge money spinner for them to host Manchester United, for example, at home in the later stages of a domestic knock-out competition.
Overall, I think this idea could gather momentum if the Scottish and English powers-that-be were agreeable.
Idea Rating: Good, but unlikely to happen.
Formalise the Youth Team/Squad Rotation element
As many clubs change their starting line-up for the early rounds of the League Cup, formalise the arrangement and enforce it. Make it a requirement that any player picked for the League Cup cannot play in the League fixture immediately before or after the League Cup match. Also, an age cap could be brought in whereby the average age of the match day squad has to be below a certain threshold (but this might be a step too far, and too complex to enforce).
Youth and fringe players have a lifeline to get some first team football and maybe put themselves in the shop window for future League fixtures or transfers. Fans would get to see players they don’t normally see. Matches would be unpredictable.
Major issues with accusations of match fixing. Let’s say that Sheffield Wednesday are in the semi-final of the League Cup against Arsenal. The match before the Arsenal game we play Reading who are battling relegation. We drop Forestieri, Bannan and Reach for the Reading game and get beat. We play Arsenal and lose. Then we can’t play those three players when we play Aston Villa who need a win to overtake Sheffield United in the play-offs. We travel to Villa and lose. The whole League picture could change if clubs start dropping star players to make them available for the later stages of the League Cup.
Making the Cup a Youth/Fringe player only competition just formalises the status as a second-rate competition. Sponsors would be difficult to attract and once the novelty wore off, and it would pretty quickly, the competition would probably end up being cancelled or rebooted in some other format.
Overall, a very poor idea.
Idea Rating: Terrible
Create a League Cup Spectacle
Pre-season, all clubs in the Premiership, Championship, League One and League Two are placed in a draw in to twenty-three groups of four. Twenty groups will have one Premiership, Championship, League One and League Two side. Three groups will have a mix of the twelve remaining Championship, League One and Two clubs.
The clubs in each group play each other once in typical group format. This would be done Friday, Monday and Thursday prior to the start of the season. The top club from each group would progress as would the nine best second place clubs.
Later in the season, when there is another break in the League season, the remaining thirty-two clubs would play the round of thirty-two on a Friday, the round of sixteen on the Monday and the quarter-finals on the Thursday.
The semi-finals and final would be played as normal in the later stages of the season.
It’s always exciting to see football played in an intense format where the matches come thick and fast. This format would ensure that the lower league clubs get a chance to play the big clubs each season. It would create some interesting match ups and create a summer competition before the “proper” season starts.
The competition could even be done in such a way so that the twenty Premier League sides and the three relegated sides in the Championship could act as “hosts” for the competition with games being played exclusively at their ground.
Some clubs would not take kindly to losing the chance for money-spinning pre-season games in Asia and the US.
This would be a logistical nightmare and create a real headache for the fixture planners.
It would not reduce the number of games and could result in the competition becoming even more of an irrelevance.
It would reduce the chances of a League One or Two club getting a favourable Cup run through fortunate draws.
Overall, too much of a head ache to be realistic.
Idea Rating: Pretty damn poor.
Do you have any suggestions for improving the League Cup? Let me know in the comments. If you enjoy reading Now We Live, please follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Also, if you would like to contribute to Now We Live please refer to our submissions page.
Critic. Writer. Thinker. Observer. Creator of nowwelive.com.