Jack Walton offers his take on the current state of football’s League Cup.
A mildly condescending defence of the League Cup, made whenever the competition’s ‘worth’ comes up for debate, is that it offers the so-called ‘small’ clubs a rare opportunity to mix it with the ‘elites’. Press coverage in the build-up gleefully hones in on noticeably incongruous match-ups, Lincoln-Liverpool for example, with stories of Lincoln players who still sleep in Steven Gerrard pyjamas and of communities bracing themselves for the biggest day of their calendar year, more exciting even than the annual village fête. The press seem to paint the likes of Mohammed Salah as some sort of messianic figure, benevolently agreeing to come and bless the Sincil Bank Stadium with his divine (first) touch. Not only is this narrative-spinning often nauseatingly patronising, the ‘elites’ rarely play anyway; In the end you feel mostly sorry for the Lincoln left-back who named his son ‘Sadio’ and whose childhood ambition to share a pitch with one his heroes, be it Fowler or Firmino, culminates in grand-scale anti-climax as Marko Grujic and a gang of scouse schoolboys pull up, barely break sweat, and go home 7-2 winners.
This is, at times, the painful truth of the Carabao Cup; that one man’s realisation of a childhood dream is another man’s inconvenient coach journey to Lincoln. Liverpool’s line-up last weekend featured just one starter from their previous league match and Manchester United, City and Chelsea acted similarly, none starting more than three. Envisaging lower-league clubs somehow as winners of a ‘meet-your-idols’ competition for having drawn against these teams only really makes sense if you’re the kind of person who idolises Phil Jones or Willy Caballero.
Ultimately, it’s hard to see who benefits from the competition. Premier League clubs competing in Europe frequently complain of fixture congestion, with non-stop schedules within which the League Cup is the obvious sacrificial lamb. Non-Premier League clubs have virtually no chance of winning anyway. Since 1992, the Coca Cola-Worthington’s-Carling-Capital One-Carabao Cup has seen more sponsors (five) than non-top-flight winners (zero). The last non ‘big six’ winners were Swansea City in 2013. If, as is often claimed, the FA Cup is slowly losing the magic it was one famed for, then the League Cup is the dilapidated graveyard where footballing magic comes to die, solemnly entombed among other entities of yesteryear, like Ceefax or Andy Gray’s career.
Financially, again, the competition serves no one. The £100,000 prize fund is never going to entice Premier League teams chasing a potential £10 million plus for Champions League qualification – yet of course remains out of reach of the teams who would benefit from it thanks to Manchester City’s gluttony for trophies. Like Jeff Bezos sidling up to the McDonald’s donation tin and plundering it for coppers, Britain’s wealthiest club have won the competition five times out of the previous seven. With the Coronavirus-induced condensing of the football schedule, it would have perhaps made sense this year to trial-run a League Cup free season, avoiding overuse of players in the run up to the rearranged Euro 2020 and potentially simultaneously, reallocating funds/coverage to the EFL Trophy, involving only clubs from League One and League Two. This is a competition they as smaller clubs have a serious chance of winning. Despite consideration, this was not implemented for the 20/21 campaign but the pressure to do something similar in the future will surely build. Whilst it might trample on a few pipe dreams in the lower echelons of the football pyramid, it would ultimately benefit the game as a whole.