League Cup: A breeding ground for success

Cesc Fabregas, Barcelona midfielderBack in 1994 Sir Alex Ferguson was the subject of heavy criticism after deciding to field some reserve players in a Manchester United team for a League Cup encounter with Port Vale.

Such was the controversy that engulfed his selection policy it was raised as an issue at the Houses of Parliament after a petition generated by Vale fans found its way to Westminster.

Included in Ferguson’s starting line-up on that brisk September evening were relative unknowns, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and Nicky Butt. United went on to win the game 2-1 with Scholes scoring twice as the quartet played starring roles.

Just a few short years later they were on the path to becoming global superstars after becoming integral figures for club and country. Amidst all the commotion around and disapproval of Ferguson’s novel approach, the players themselves gave it justification.

Over 18 years later and clubs are now urged to use the Capital One Cup to offer younger players the opportunity to hone their crafts and prove their credentials as stars of the future.

Arsene Wenger is a manager who has embraced such a philosophy and, unlike Ferguson, was lauded for utilising the competition as an avenue to blood the club’s next generation. His methods became a benchmark for others to follow.

As has been proven by Beckham and others, the League Cup has become a successful breeding ground for young talent to induct themselves into the brutal environment that is professional football. That isn’t limited to the physical side of the game but also the mental aspects that can so easily prove the biggest obstacle preventing a player from fulfilling their potential.

Acquiring that level of experience and knowledge can only be done in a practical environment and managers are now conscious of the benefits of starting their youngsters out in the safe confines of the competition.

You only have to glance at some of the names that have cut their teeth in a similar manner and gone on to become highly recognised players around the world.

Steven Gerrard, Gerard Pique, Cesc Fabregas, Giuseppe Rossi, Robbie Fowler, Joe Hart and even Emile Heskey are just a handful who have used the League Cup to launch their glittering careers.

All of them have gone on to represent some of Europe’s top clubs, play regularly for their respective national teams and pick up an incalculable amount of silverware along the way.

Fabregas, for example, arrived at Arsenal in 2003 as a 16-year-old from hometown club Barcelona and was limited primarily to League Cup ties by Wenger during his development year in North London.

It proved to be an essential learning curve for the Spaniard and by 2008 he had risen to become the Gunners captain and heartbeat of their midfield before returning to the Nou Camp in 2011 as one of the best players on the planet.

But where Ferguson failed to convince the masses that the League Cup served a significant purpose in the growth of young players, Wenger has succeeded in changing perceptions regarding the competition during the modern era.

So prevalent have their methods become that line-ups containing mostly senior players are a rare occurrence with the focus now firmly shifted to giving budding stars the opportunity to flourish.

Nearly two decades on from Ferguson’s controversial selection policy there must be a few Port Vale fans feeling rather bashful right now. His pioneering views are now widespread across the board aided by one of his greatest rivals.