The Football League Cup (also known as the Capital One Cup or the Carling Cup or the Worthington Cup in recent years) has often been held in very low regard amongst managers and pundits alike. Notable examples include Sir Alex Ferguson referring to the competition as a “Mickey Mouse Cup” and Arsenal fans claiming that winning the competition when they reached the final in 2011 would not signal an end to their much publicized trophy drought. In the past, managers have used the opportunity to give fringe and youth team players the opportunity to impress their manager. Some are even happy to see their team eliminated as it eases fixture congestion and gives players more opportunities to rest and put more time in on the training ground. It is also viewed as a distraction from the main goals of a season, which are (depending on the quality of the team) qualification to the Champions League, remaining in the Premier League or promotion to the Premier League.
However, the League Cup still has its merits, many of which were on display during this week’s quarter-finals. The League Cup is still a competition that is worth winning, reaching the final means a trip to Wembley which is any English football supporter’s dream. The League Cup culminates at the end of February, well before the hectic run-in that so often causes fixture congestion as a result of rearranged matches affected by the later stages of the FA Cup and the knockout rounds of the Champions and Europa League. For many sides, the League Cup offers a realistic hope at attaining silverware and a chance to salvage a season. It requires winning either fewer or equal (depending on what stage the sides in question enters at) ties than the FA Cup does. Winning the League Cup offers teams a route into Europe that otherwise would be almost unattainable. In recent memory, Birmingham City and Swansea have enjoyed memorable Europa League campaigns that were earned through victory in the League Cup. For more established sides like Tottenham and Liverpool, two of this year’s semi-finalists, who at the moment have a battle on their hands to finish in the top four and have to go through four two-legged ties just to reach the final of the Europa League this spring, the League Cup offers a relatively straightforward way of finding form, attaining glory and inspiring belief in their supporters. For a side like Chelsea, who are the strongest side in England at the moment and one of the top five in Europe, the League Cup offers an opportunity for Jose Mourinho to win the competition that was his first trophy in English soccer when he won the League Cup with Chelsea in 2005. That triumph sparked Chelsea onto further triumphs, including the Premier League later that year and in 2006 as well as the FA Cup and another League Cup in 2007. Winning is a habit, no matter the prestige of the competition and the League Cup provides a good opportunity to help develop that habit.
The League Cup also offers less heralded sides a second chance at giant killings and lucrative, money spinning ties. MK Dons’ 4-0 victory over Manchester United in the Second Round will live long in the memories of their supporters. Shrewsbury Town were given a once in a lifetime opportunity when they hosted Chelsea in the Fourth Round, and were just a few minutes away from sending the match into extra time. Bradford of League Two reached the final in 2013, defeating three Premier League sides (Wigan, Arsenal and Aston Villa) along the way. As a result, the League Cup run offered the finest memory for their supporters since Bradford were relegated from the Premier League in 2001. The most recent round of matches saw three sides in the top half of the Premier League table visit lower league sides. For Derby County (who lost 3-1 to Chelsea) and AFC Bournemouth (who lost 3-1 to Liverpool), two sides that are currently in the thick of promotion race (Bournemouth are top of the Championship) and Derby are two points behind in third), the home ties against top opposition gave their fans an opportunity to take a brief glimpse into a Premier League atmosphere and the opportunity to dream of what it could be like on a regular basis if their teams get promoted. For Sheffield United, who had already knocked off three Premier League sides this calendar year (they defeated Aston Villa and Fulham in last season’s FA Cup en route to a Wembley semi-final and West Ham in this season’s League Cup Second Round), their victory over Southampton provided a fourth giant killing and a two legged semi-final with inconsistent Tottenham for a trip to Wembley.
The last reason why the League Cup is still important is because of the supporters. The League Cup gives supporters an extra opportunity to support their teams. Last night’s quarter-final between Tottenham and Newcastle United was the loudest White Hart Lane has been all season. With the extra allocations provided to away supporters (Newcastle received 4,200 tickets instead of the 3,000 provided for Premier League games), the Toon Army arrived en masse. They made as much noise as possible in Liverpool station and on the train to White Hart Lane and continued all the way through the final whistle, even though their team were outclassed and on the wrong end of a 4-0 scoreline. Given that Newcastle already played in North London last weekend when they visited Arsenal and have a Tyne-Wear derby with Sunderland this weekend, this display of support on a Wednesday night and the 10 hour round trip from Newcastle to London that accompanied it was quite impressive. The Spurs fans also contributed to the atmosphere, singing “Spurs are on their way to Wembley” throughout the duration of the second half, a clear sign that this victory really means more to them than progression in a “Mickey Mouse Cup.” It was similar when Brighton and Hove Albion visited in the fourth round, the away support was abnormally vociferous.
It also seems as if the managers are picking up on this and taking the competition more seriously. Chelsea sent out a significantly stronger side against Derby than they did last week against Sporting Lisbon in the Champions League last week, and made clear their intentions of winning and progressing. Newcastle also sent out their strongest available XI. Tottenham did make six changes from the team that beat Swansea on Sunday, but the team and substitutes still constituted what normally would be the first 18 (with the exception of Aaron Lennon). Ronald Koeman, the manager of Southampton, was visibly angered at the completion of Southampton’s defeat to Sheffield United, and refused to shake his opposite number Nigel Clough’s hand. Hopefully this passion and desire to win the competition continues in future years, as this year’s edition of the tournament has been quite entertaining, and we still have a two-legged semi-final between Chelsea and Liverpool to look forward to. Feel free to share your thoughts on the League Cup in the comments below.
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