No sooner had the final whistle blown in this year’s EFL Cup Final and the “Campione” chants rang around Wembley stadium, that the same, familiar chorus of disapproval started to vibrate around social media accounts across the land:
“It’s not a REAL trophy”.
“The League Cup doesn’t count”
“We’re bigger than that competition”
(That last one was ACTUALLY said to me by a Manchester United fan LAST WEEK).
But why do we hate the League Cup? Why is it so far down the pecking order in terms of competitions that many fans would rather see defeat in the early stages than a day out at Wembley Stadium? I’m sure it can’t be the six quid they charge for a match day pie can it?
All too often we ask why fans and managers have fallen out of love with the FA Cup without sparing a thought for the poor old League version. If our love affair with the FA Cup is in danger of breaking down, then we have already divorced the League Cup several years ago along with an acrimonious out-of-court settlement in which it ended up with the house, the car and the kids.
My first thought is maybe it’s the sponsors. The league cup has been sponsored by a dizzying and bewildering number of brands over the years from Milk to Rumbellow’s to Littlewoods. None of which cries “Sex Appeal” (unless you are talking about a certain section of the Littlewoods catalogue – if you know what I mean). Even this year, when no lead sponsor has been appointed, it still doesn’t sound quite right – the rebranding as ‘EFL’ sounding all too similar to an alt-right-wing political movement.
Maybe it’s the prize money? Winning the Football League trophy may come hand in hand with a nice shiny silver vase to stick in the club museum but it doesn’t help fill the club’s coffers. This season we’re talking about £100million TV deals for every team in the league and yet winning the League Cup final will boost club finances by a lowly £100,000… that’s just over a third of what Wayne Rooney earns in a week! Sure, to me £100k may seem like a fair chunk of cash but when you consider that’s the same amount that saw Torino buy Denis Law from City for back in 1961 you can probably reason that times, financially, have moved on.
How about the occasion? Has some of the magic been lost? In times gone by a Cup Final, whatever flavour, was a special occasion. The game would stand alone on its day as a beacon of footballing glory in an otherwise desolate weekend wilderness of matches. Reporters would roam around Wembley hours before kick-off to talk to “zany” fans who had turned up early, we’d be treated to extensive documentaries about Wembley’s history and live helicopter images would follow the team from their hotel to the ground treading a snakelike the path through London’s traffic. Sure it was overkill. Sure it was boring. But now we’ve gone the other way. This weekend’s EFL Cup final was screened after Spurs hammering of Stoke City, and shown only on Sky TV – forcing fans onto dodgy streams and text updates meaning that the communal magic of the cup is no more. It was NOT an occasion.
Truth is, it’s not down to any one single thing. We can’t blame sponsorship when we happily act as walking billboards for whatever dubious brand our board decide to stick on our replica kit this season. It can’t be the money when each and every one of us would happily stick two fingers up at financial fair play rules if it meant our club could fork out eye-boggling sums of cash on an Italian wonderkid. It certainly isn’t the occasion when it is us, the fans, who demand wall to wall football every single weekend. The idea of an hour, yet alone a day without a live game leaves us in a cold sweat. We are simply being given the sickly sweet football action whenever we ask for it with no one to tell us we’ve had enough and need to do our chores before we’re sick all over our toys again.
What has really damaged the League Cup, and the FA Cup to a lesser extent is the dwindling value of domestic football. The Champions League is a prize above any other. Arsene Wenger was right when he said a top four finish was a trophy in itself because that has become the ultimate prize. The financial rewards and big name player signing potential that a place in Europe brings has become the big carrot in English football, which means something, somewhere has to be sacrificed. Why should we as fans get excited when their forking out £35 to watch clubs field B-Teams and Kids in the “little sister” of domestic football?
But we should. We should get excited. We should lead by example.
There is a reason why the likes of Brian Clough, Alex Ferguson and now Jose Mourinho puts so much stock into a competition that “doesn’t count”… it’s because it does. It’s a chance for a nation to bond over one big game of football. It’s a chance for fans to celebrate their communal love of a team during a special event and importantly, it can set a marker for the run-in as the first bit of silverware of the season….
…except the Community Shield. That REALLY doesn’t count.
Jim is the voice of On The Left Side, the satirical football podcast. This week they tackle Pie-Gate, City’s Goal-Fest in the Champions League and Claudio Raneri’s departure plus a load more football funny.