Saturday, September 24, 2005

Ah, the romance of the League Cup. Third-tier clubs preparing for money-spinning Tuesday-night trips to Charlton Athletic. Eager youngsters waiting up for the highlights programme at 11:50 (assuming there is a highlights programme). Arsenal coming in at the third round, fielding a team of French 16-year-olds, none of whom wears a squad number lower than 40, and immediately crashing out to the resounding silence of nobody giving a toss, least of all Arsene Wenger.

All right, so nobody has ever described the League Cup as romantic. Ever. For some reason the FA Cup is the only English football tournament to be designated as romantic. (Come to think of it, you rarely hear of ‘the romance of the UEFA Cup’ either.) And it often feels as though the axe, if not hanging directly over the League Cup, has had strings attached to it should it be necessary to hang it over the League Cup at short notice.

I’m very strongly in favour of keeping it, which is partly because I’m a 26-year-old Aston Villa fan and it’s the only thing I can remember us ever having won. (Twice. And if we hadn’t won it in 1994, Man Utd would be the only team to have won the English domestic treble and would still be going on about it to this day, so be grateful.) But in an environment where some clubs expect to win something every year, it seems foolhardy to do away with a piece of silverware.

The problem is that the League Cup seems almost ‘not to count’ as far as the big boys are concerned. A few years ago, when it was the only prize Man Utd managed to score that season, it might as well have been a giant copper plaque with the words ‘ALSO-RANS’ ornately engraved into it. The only value of the League Cup is as part of a set. Having it on its own is like owning a statuette of George Harrison when you actually wanted all four Beatles, and not really being sure where to put it.

Quite how this happened, or how it can be reversed, I’m not entirely sure, but blaming commercial television and the Champions League has served me well so far so I don’t see any reason to change my tune now. It’s notable that the League Cup final is now the only top-flight tournament final that isn’t broadcast on free-to-air television. The match is not, therefore, the talking point that it should be: this is partly ITV’s fault for making a hash of its bold new age of digital football coverage.

However, I feel that the Champions League is the more significant factor. (The generally detrimental effect of the Champions League on football is a subject I’ll probably return to with punishing regularity this season, and expand on my views in a later column. Just remember: it’s not a league and more than half the teams in it aren’t champions.) With the first few months of the season now packed with European fixtures thanks to the introduction of a group stage to the European Cup, Man Utd and Arsenal have become irritable with the extra fixtures.

This is, frankly, pretty goddamned rich when those clubs are the ones with the depth of squad to cope with a packed fixture list. It’s also yet another example of big clubs failing to look out for the little guys – one of the reasons why the League Cup exists at all is to give lower-division clubs their own lucrative ties. The FA, clearly afraid that if the big clubs drop out of the tournament altogether then it’ll go the way of the Zenith Data Systems Cup, has already tried to assist by stripping the early rounds of their second legs and allowing teams involved in Europe to sit out until round three. (This year Newcastle have been given a bye too, presumably to rest their weary legs after their gruelling second-round exit from the Intertoto Cup.)

Still, if the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool take the League Cup as seriously as they did last year then it could still be a good tournament. And a number of Premiership sides were caught napping this week by lower-division teams and were obviously not chuffed to have been embarrassed, which is a good sign: as anybody who saw Man City’s risible penalty shoot-out performance on can confirm, the League Cup may not be romantic but it can be comedy.