Why the League Cup still matters

The League Cup TrophyFollowing the third round of League Cup upsets, there’s been a lot of noise being made by sets of fans that the competition is either ‘irrelevant’ ‘unimportant’ or a mere ‘distraction’.

While there may be a semblance of truth to all three of those points there is no denying that for a lot of fans watching our team play in any competition is never ‘unimportant’ otherwise why would we spend our money to do it?

Of course not every fan bothers to buy tickets for the Carling Cup but there are still many that do, not to mention those that travel to glamorous places such as Brentford and Scunthorpe to watch what may actually be a reserve side compete in the competition.

The League Cup has always held a special place in my heart- not because it’s the most glamorous trophy to win but because one of my fondest football memories has been from the competition.

I can remember way back in 1990 when my Dad took me to Old Trafford to see United face Liverpool in the then Rumbelows Cup. Liverpool were the League Champions and had been busy dominating English football for the past 15 years while United despite winning the FA cup the previous season had struggled under Sir Alex Ferguson.

United won 3-1 and I can vividly recall Mark Hughes sending a 25-yard screamer over Bruce Grobbelaar’s head- you couldn’t tell the Old Trafford crowd that night that the competition was ’irrelevant.’

I also recall my first Wembley final in 1994 where I saw Aston Villa beat United 3-1 and feeling absolutely gutted , there was no ‘treble’ and I actually worried that I may be a Wembley final ‘jinx.’

Admittedly the League Cup is not the top of everyone’s wish list, I’m pretty sure most kids don’t run around the playground dreaming of scoring the winning goal in the Carling Cup final. When I saw United beat Spurs on penalties in the final a couple if years ago, I remember the feeling of anti-climax once Anderson scored the winner. It was like ‘nice 1 we’ve just won the Carling Cup’ rather than any Moscow-type euphoria.

However the League Cup is still a major trophy, there’s still a trip to Wembley and can lead to Europe for the winners that haven’t qualified through other means. Going back a few season’s Spurs’ win over Chelsea in the Carling Cup final may actually have been bigger than most people thought at the time. Had Chelsea won it may have given them and Avram Grant a bit of momentum to move forward and take the League and even the CL. I know it sounds little far-fetched that a Carling Cup victory can reverberate so much but following the defeat to Spurs, there was a lot of negative talk about how Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka can’t play together, Jose Mourinho never lost a final, etc.

Go back a couple of more seasons and anyone who recalls the melee between Chelsea and Arsenal players in the final which saw everyone’s favourite striker Emmanuel Adebayor sent off -as well as Kolo Toure and Jon Obi Mikel – can’t have thought the competition wasn’t being taken seriously.

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Last season saw Manchester’s two teams battle it out in the semi-final and there was a lot more to play for than just local pride. Roberto Mancini had made it clear he wanted to rip down the banner at Old Trafford that says ’34 years’  in reference to the last time City won a major trophy. Then there was rent-a-gob Gary Cook’s comments to a New York, Manchester City supporters club about how City were going to win and it would be the first of many etc.

Both legs were played out in front of an electric atmosphere and it can’t be said that either side took the game lightly. Fergie even chose to appeal Rio Ferdinand’s ban for his elbow on that other rent-a-gob Craig Fagan , so he could play in the second leg- despite knowing it would surely increase his ban. Wayne Rooney’s last-minute goal to send United through to the final and make City wait at least one more year to rip down the banner, sent Old Trafford into rapture. No-one was calling the competition a ‘distraction’ then.

Like City, Arsenal have come in for criticism, well Arsene Wenger has, for failing to deliver a trophy in the past five years. A League Cup win would hardly rank as the most glorious of triumphs but it would still be a trophy that could silence a few over zealous critics.

This season we’ve already seen the likes of Chelsea, Spurs, Liverpool, Everton and Man City depart the competition and while all five teams certainly do have bigger priorities, I imagine any of them would have liked to have won it.

Despite the noises I’m hearing from a lot of Spurs fans following Arsenal’s recent victory at White Hart Lane about how it doesn’t matter because Spurs have  bigger things like the Champion’s League to concentrate on, I’m sorry but for the Gooners it must still be a memorable victory. Beating your derby rivals in their own back yard is always satisfying no matter what the occasion.

For some of the mid-table or so-called ‘lesser’ teams the League Cup has been the scene of their biggest success. Sides like Swindon, Norwich, Oxford, Luton, Leicester and more recently Middlesbrough would no doubt count League Cup final wins as a major part of their history.

While for a lot of the top teams the League Cup, especially the early rounds, will always be a chance to give the fringe members of the squad a game, even they have brought out the big guns for the latter stages.
Last season United brought Wayne Rooney off the bench to replace an injured Michael Owen, while the season before Cristiano Ronaldo was in United’s starting XI for the final.

Over the past few years we’ve even heard suggestions from certain sections of the press, fans or even clubs that the competition should be abolished, that no-one really cares anymore and it’s a drain on resources.

However the point I’m making is that despite it being one of the least important competitions it still matters. It can still throw up exciting ties, amazing upsets and plenty of drama. There’s also the younger players at some of the bigger clubs who only get a chance to turn out for the first team in  the Carling Cup, for them it’s a chance to show their worth to the manager.

For many teams it’s not a ‘distraction’ but a chance to take a trip to a ground they’ve only seen on the telly. The latest round of League Cup games highlighted that the competition still has a lot to offer, now if United had lost at Scunthorpe then that would have been another matter…..

Read more of Justin’s work on his excellent blog ‘Name on the Trophy’ or follow him on twitter.