Rebranding has tended to add to the common impression that the League/Milk/Worthington/Carling/EFL Cup is a gimmick of a trophy. A final before the spring months are upon us, European teams entering late and a lack of interest in the cup from some of the nation’s strongest sides has always made the now-named EFL Cup the least relevant of the domestic trophies available in England.
Dwarfed by its history-laced brother, the FA Cup, success in the League Cup has been consistently qualified as victory in an irrelevant competition for clubs looking to go on to achieve even greater success. European schedules make League Cup games a chore and a squad management challenge.
There have been outliers to this pattern, of course. Jose Mourinho, most notably, pushed hard to win the Carling Cup in 2005, using the success as a springboard to Premier League victory. Then, although deemed an inferior trophy, it was seen as a move to eliminate the risk of a trophyless first season.
This approach sees the timing of the competition as a pressure-lifter, but it could change soon. Liverpool, for instance, who are without the burden of European football this season, could see the EFL Cup as a strong opportunity to secure the first trophy of Jurgen Klopp’s reign. They almost lifted it last year.
Whilst winning the FA Cup requires clubs to play additional games in the second half of the campaign, when squads are typically suffering from suspensions, fatigue and injuries, clubs can be three games away from winning the EFL Cup even before Christmas. The timing of the competition, despite being a major hindrance for European competitors, is a blessing for many. Squads are still relatively fresh, giving teams who have momentum a very significant chance of bursting to within touching distance of silverware early in the long slog of an English season.
We are seeing a marked move away from the status quo in English football. As the sport becomes dominated by business decisions and branding inflates in importance, lifting trophies and competing in European competition is about more than just honour. Although this is not new, the improved financial equality at the top of the English game has seen even the weaker Premier League teams build squads with depth, giving them the opportunities to name stronger sides in cup competitions without undermining the fitness of their league XIs.
Traditionally, the FA Cup will always be superior. Naturally, from the outside, it will be considered the trophy that clubs really want, whether that’s the reality or not. The EFL Cup, however, both offers an easier path to a trophy and avoids the demands on tired squads of the FA Cup. It is a route into European football and will inevitably become a target for a host of clubs who feel it is their best chance of playing on the continental stage. Equally, the opportunity to claim silverware will always be a dangling carrot for a swathe of managers who know that, despite its detractors, winning a trophy will earn time and credit at a club.
Although perception will never be that the League Cup is a major trophy, it’s status as such is unquestioned. Lifting the FA Cup may be the childhood dream, the glorious tale – like Wigan produced in 2013 – but pragmatism dictates that many top flight clubs will prioritise the League Cup. For sides without the threat of relegation or realistic top six aims in the league, the League Cup presents a tantalising opportunity to utilise your squad at full freshness and push for unlikely silverware.