Will no one defend the League Cup? The unloved would-be victim of Project Big Picture is still worth saving

League Cup 2002
(Image credit: PA)

Premier League, Champions League, Premier League, Champions League, Premier League, Champions League, Premier League. Liverpool and Manchester United may not have got their way just yet but their fixture lists for the next month seem to contain a glimpse of the future they envisage.

Liverpool face Everton and Manchester City, plus Champions League semi-finalists and quarter-finalists from the last two seasons, albeit Ajax and Atalanta. United have Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton and last season’s runners-up and semi-finalists, in Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig. There is no repeat of their relatively recent October dates with Swansea, Middlesbrough and Norwich in the League Cup, because there is no League Cup until December.

This year’s competition has felt like an advertisement for its abolition: a flurry of rounds, featuring games that were rearranged at late dates, a surfeit of even weaker teams because of fixture congestion and some decidedly odd choices for televised fixtures, followed by a hiatus of almost three months.

 And, oddly enough, some are willing its demise. One of the least controversial elements about Project Big Picture appears to be the suggestion to scrap the League Cup. While Liverpool, United and Rick Parry’s plans are officially dead, a forthcoming strategic review means a version of them is sure to live on. The League Cup is not.

Yet it should. The argument that France is the only other country with a second domestic Cup competition and it is being scrapped is insufficient. The only clubs suffering from fixture congestion – in a normal season, anyway - are those who want to expand the Champions League and go on longer, more lucrative pre-season tours.

But the League Cup is worth preserving in its own right. It has been both the vehicle for unlikely glory and the route to silverware for top teams. The great anomalies of the last decade are Leicester City winning the Premier League and Wigan Athletic the FA Cup. Yet it is the League Cup that offers the most scope: for the minnows, the mid-ranking teams, the fallen giants and the starved of silverware alike.

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It has offered the sort of memories to give it genuine meaning. It is the most recent trophy Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest, Tottenham, Blackburn, Norwich and Sheffield Wednesday have won. It is the only one or ones for Birmingham, Norwich, Middlesbrough, Stoke, QPR, Swindon, Luton, Oxford and (in England anyway) Swansea. The most recent major final Villa, Bradford, Sunderland, Southampton, Bolton, Tranmere and Leeds played in was in the League Cup.  In the last 1990s and early 2000s, it generated some unlikely winners and some superb semi-finals.

And, yes, it weakens the competition’s cause that 14 of the last 16 winners may profit from its abolition. Yet that indicates a change that has raised the standard. Jose Mourinho recognised its status as the most winnable trophy, Sir Alex Ferguson copied him and Pep Guardiola has followed suit. In contrast, Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino followed in Arsene Wenger’s footsteps by taking it less seriously.

League Cup

(Image credit: PA)

But it serves a valuable purpose. It generates some of the shocks that are the essence of Cup competitions. It also boosts the lower-league clubs in a way elitist proposals to restructure the game will not. Last season, Rochdale made about £500,000 by playing United last season; killing a competition halves their chances of getting such ties. Indeed, it was only their second meeting. Colchester, who had eliminated Tottenham, played at Old Trafford for the first time. Without the League Cup, will they ever return?

 Removing it would cement the growing divide, reducing the chance the best and the rest will meet and, given FA Cup replays could be scrapped for good, further limiting the opportunities for League One and Two players to feature at arenas like Anfield and Old Trafford. 

The League Cup could be reformed. Its two-legged semi-final, which is a particular irritation to Guardiola, feels an anachronism. One idea would be to reinvent it as a tournament without the sides playing European football, with the carrot of a trophy and a place in continental competition. 

But another idea would be simply to keep something that is part of English football’s history and identity and which offers something to clubs up and down the pyramid. The League Cup is worth saving.

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Richard Jolly

Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.