First Person Account of League Cup Experience: Why Cup Success Is Bittersweet For Lower League Teams

Clearly incapable of going one solitary evening without watching soccer in some capacity, I chose to sample a League Cup tie involving one of my local sides on Tuesday night. Tranmere Rovers were playing Bolton Wanderers in the second round of the League Cup, so I went along with some Tranmere-supporting mates to enjoy a midweek game.

If you’re unfamiliar with Tranmere, here’s a little bit of information about the team. They are a fantastic, family club steeped in proper English footballing tradition. Famous players to have donned their all-white strip down the years include Dixie Dean and John Aldridge. They are based in Birkenhead, which is on the Wirral – across the river Mersey from Liverpool – and as such, they have to compete with the likes of Everton and Liverpool when young supporters choose their footballing allegiances.

It would be fair to say the club have had better times than the present day. Having challenged at the top-end of the Championship for large portions of the 90’s and the early 00’s, they now find themselves treading water in the third tier of English football. This season has started in worrying fashion, with Rovers having picked up just one point from their opening four games. In their last league game, they lost 5-0 at home to Peterborough United in what was by all accounts, a shambolic performance.

In rotten spells of form like this, the League Cup can offer an escape route for some teams. Premier League outfits will often field a line-up with a balance of fringe players and youngsters, giving them an opportunity to make an impression and maybe force their way into the first team. But this isn’t necessarily the case for teams languishing in the third tier.

Having suffered a host of injuries throughout the early stages of this campaign, news filtered through prior to kick-off that Tranmere would only be filling four of the seven slots available for substitutes. The players who were in the starting XI were playing out of necessity.

When arranging somewhere to meet before the game, I was told ‘bring your boots’ by a mate. In all honesty, I wasn’t one-hundred percent sure if he was joking.

Pre-match pub talk soon turned to Tranmere’s participation in this competition. The expectation is that they will most likely lose, the tiny squad will get run ragged and it will have a detrimental effect on their league game at the weekend. In their current predicament, you could say it is probably a competition they could do without.

But there is some positivity. After all, Tranmere have a special affinity with this competition after reaching the final back in 2000. Talk of Bradford City’s sensational run in last years tournament is also prominent and it’s muted that a half decent run might mean the club can get a player or two in somewhere down the line.

Upon entering Tranmere Rovers’ stadium, Prenton Park, it becomes apparent it will not even be at half capacity. Despite the club putting a two-for-one offer on for the game, the League Cup just doesn’t draw in the numbers that club’s of Tranmere’s stature crave. It’s a shame there were not more in the ground to witness it, because the match itself is an engrossing spectacle. Eventually, Tranmere get the win their battling display deserved. Lead superbly by their 40-year-old skipper Ian Goodison, they triumph 4-2 on penalties.

The supporters were obviously elated after securing victory in such dramatic circumstances, but post match reflections revealed further concerns.

The squad is threadbare already, so 120 minutes of frantic football will have jaded the players further. Not to mention, a tricky away trip to Oldham on Saturday means there will be little respite for Rovers. It is a worry, especially when staying in League 1 remains their foremost priority.

There are not many Tranmere supporters who would say no to a profitable cup run, though. It would take a miracle for them to lift the cup, but a tie away to one of the Premier League giants could provide a major monetary boost. For a club with the lowest operating budget in League 1, the financial implications of playing at Old Trafford or Emirates Stadium would be enormous. So much so, that any windfall from a tie like that would probably guarantee the club’s solvency for the foreseeable future.

So it’s a difficult one for the supporters, and the overwhelming emotion was bittersweet. After the match, I asked Tranmere season ticket holder Tom Silverwood if he would have swapped the win against Bolton for a guaranteed three points at Oldham:

“If you’d have asked me before tonight I’d have said yes, but in hindsight, no. That was the kind of performance we needed to install the fighting spirit we’ve been lacking. Plus, one big name in the draw would make a massive difference.”

But you need a bit of luck to secure a draw like those aforementioned. Tranmere could easily bag another home tie against a Championship, League 1 or League 2 side. That would only see the club pull in a similarly paltry attendance and once again, have their small squad pushed to breaking point for seemingly little reward.

Bradford City’s story last season was a remarkable one and a fine example of what this competition can potentially do for lower league teams. But a run like that is unprecedented, and is unlikely to ever be repeated. The stark realities are that there will be clubs similar to Tranmere Rovers all over the country who today have a squad riddled with injuries and fatigue. And to think, we’re only one month into the season.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments section or on Twitter: @MattJFootball

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