Why the League Cup means lots and lots
They say the League Cup's been devalued. As is often the case, "they" are wrong, says Chris Nee...
On Sunday Aston Villa will play in their first final for a decade, battling with Manchester United at Wembley in each side's eighth League Cup final.
With five successes under their belts, Villa have a special affinity for the League Cup. One generation of supporters has had precious little else to celebrate since Villa's European Cup win in 1982; no wonder the 1994 and 1996 League Cup victories remain defining memories.
For a club of Aston Villa's size it's awkward to explain why the 2010 Carling Cup final means as much as it does. Why, you ask, are supporters of a club with designs on a Champions League spot celebrating a trip to Wembley with such vigour?
The pitch invasion after the bizarre semi-final win over Blackburn Rovers could be interpreted as embarrassing, but in reality it captured in one wonderful moment the unbridled desire with which a place in the final was viewed.
Aston delirium: Do these fans look unfussed?
The League Cup's stock has been falling fast for more than a decade. The expansion of the Champions League has shifted priorities for many of the big clubs that would previously have had a serious tilt at the League Cup every season, and the media's focus on the so-called race for fourth has largely driven England's secondary cup competition out of the football public's affections.
That's not entirely true at Villa Park. Historical success and a silverware-starved fanbase mean that the League Cup is still held in high esteem in the claret and blue areas of Birmingham.
Villa's previous Wembley appearance came in May 2000 when they were beaten 1-0 by Chelsea in the FA Cup final. The match itself was widely derided as one of the dullest FA Cup finals in living memory, and that's jointly down to Villa's tactical approach and their almost total failure to rise to the occasion.
The performance that day, as throughout so much of the next decade, was painfully limp. Life under Graham Taylor and David O'Leary was as miserable as anything John Gregory dished up in his final months at the club. Doug Ellis failed to capitalise on football's lucrative new era and the future looked bleak..
"Well, we messed that up"
With Ellis and O'Leary in charge in 2006/07, Aston Villa would have been genuine candidates for relegation. Memories of the club's most recent trophy, lifted by Andy Townsend after the 1996 Wembley victory over Leeds United, had long faded.
Randy Lerner's takeover and the appointment of Martin O'Neill saved Villa from an humiliating fall from grace, and Sunday's walk down Wembley Way will mark the first step in its welcome revival.
The celebration after the Blackburn match was not small-time. It was a collective sigh of relief, an acknowledgement that the club is no longer on its knees. Villa will not qualify for the Champions League this season, and maybe they never will.
But after years of stumbling along, in-fighting and abject anonymity, it's difficult to put into words how much it means to be 90 minutes away from putting a cup in the cabinet.
For some supporters it's hard to come to terms with the fact that clubs now see fourth place in the league as an acceptable target. What happened to winning the title, or at least aiming to? Fourth place and a Champions League qualifying tie should be a consolation prize, not something teams 'race' for.
But there is sanctuary for such traditionalists, and that is Wembley. It's the noisy stroll along Wembley Way, the seething mass of waving flags, the prospect of immediate, unadulterated glory. Cup finals are wonderful occasions, and football is sometimes in danger of forgetting that.
Having been so far from any kind of success in recent years, Villa fans have shown that even the League Cup final is worth embracing with boundless enthusiasm.