The Carling/Worthington/Coca-Cola/Rumbelows/Litlewoods/Milk/League Cup has led a troubled existence ever since its original inception back in 1960. For over half a century it has stubbornly hung around like a plain lass in the Playboy mansion, its relevance increasingly waning with every passing season. Despite irregular calls to scrap it from those with vested interests elsewhere it remains doggedly attached to the football calendar yet no matter what incentives are brought in to appease the bigger clubs – a Europa League spot for the victor and staggered entry for the Premier League sides – its worth continues to divide opinion. The blunt truth is that it’s in real danger of being squeezed out of an extremely crowded fixture list.
For several years we’ve had to endure the same pathetic justifications from managers as they make wholesale changes from the previous weekend and field comically weakened sides. Now even that complicit dignity has been deprived the tournament.
Earlier this season Neil Warnock openly admitted to being delighted that his QPR was dumped out in the second round at home to lowly Rochdale while fellow top flight newcomers Norwich and Swansea put up the merest of resistance to MK Dons and Shrewsbury respectively at the same early stage. It is hard to imagine the pre-match team talks undertaken by Warnock, Lambert and Rogers were said with quite the same tub-thumping gusto as for a Premier League encounter.
Originally introduced to exploit the opportunity of midweek fixtures due to the proliferation of floodlights at grounds now it’s used by the bigger clubs to utilize their strength in depth and give their first-team regulars a midweek breather. As such it is a maligned tournament in desperate need of a face-lift and individual identity.
So how do we save the Carling Cup? Because save it we must. It offers lower league clubs a vital source of extra revenue not to mention the chance to go toe-to-toe with the Manchester Uniteds of this world as illustrated by Aldershot’s attempt at a giant-killing last night. Last February’s triumph for Birmingham meanwhile – their first major honour for forty-eight years in an exhilarating final – proved there was still a vitality, relevance and, most importantly, interest to the format.
It’s time for the League Cup to drop it’s needy, runt-of-the-litter insecurity that has long held it back and firmly embrace a niche in the crowded market.
Personally I believe the best chance for it to flourish amongst some stiff competition is to turn its primary failings into a positive; to just come right out and say that it’s for squad players only. No first-team superstars allowed, at least for the Premier League sides anyway. Ladies and gentlemen I give you the Carling Squad Cup.
Immediately this would give the tournament a unique point of interest and identity in addition to no longer suffering from being devalued by top flight outfits putting out their second string - or in the case of Arsenal last night giving a debut to an unknown kid with number 57 on his back. That’s because they would have no choice but to field their reserves.
At the start of each season every Premier League manager (and this ruling only applies to PL clubs) is forced to hand over their first-choice starting XI for the campaign ahead. These players are then exempt from the competition right the way through. Not only would this make the Carling Squad Cup more of a level playing field it will eradicate the slightly unsavoury sight of a fringe player performing wonders in each round only to be unceremoniously dropped when his club reaches the business end of the semis and beyond. Furthermore if the lists were made public prior to each season it would soon become an event in itself as fans discovered who their manager regards (at that stage of the season at least) to be his strongest, preferred side. A decent talking point and a nice bit of annual publicity for a beleaguered tournament.
Lastly, it offers greater status and gravity to the squad players and aren’t we always being told it’s a squad game these days?
Let’s drop the tired old pretence and just call it what it already is because it’s time for the League Cup – as some still refer to it - to drop it’s needy, runt-of-the-litter insecurity that has long held it back and firmly embrace a niche in the crowded market. Because the niche is there and we’ll still watch.
The idea above admittedly has flaws aplenty but there is not question that something needs to be done, whether it’s a simple rebranding or a complete overhaul, and your own suggestions – even if it’s to keep things as they are – are welcome in the comments box beneath.
Because if the status quo remains then the cup that gave us Don Rogers, Dennis Tueart’s bicycle kick, and Brian Stein’s last-gasp Luton glory, is in very real danger of dying a slow and undeserved death.
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