It’s hard to explain my feelings about the league cup defeat to MK Dons on Tuesday night. There is a sense of ambiguity, of half considered befuddlement, where the competition as a whole becomes a low rent distraction. I don’t think I can accurately describe my thoughts on the game until I’ve clarified my thoughts on the entire competition, so let us begin there.
What is the point of the Carling Cup? It’s the football league’s own cup competition with all 92 football league teams taking part and traditionally plays second fiddle to both the F.A cup and any league commitments among the bigger clubs. The format of the competition seems largely based around a formula designed not to irritate anyone. Ties are played out on one night in the early rounds, no replays with only the semi-finals bring in the classic two leg format. Teams involved in European competition only enter the competition at the 3rd round stage, with teams in the premier league coming in at the 2nd round stage.
So what’s the problem with it? Well firstly, hardly anyone wants to win it. Last season Birmingham did win it and then promptly got relegated. I really think you would struggle to find a fan who would not rather have survived and given back the trophy. Yes winning something is great, especially for a club that hadn’t won anything in nearly 50 years, but it’s hard to take pride in a victory where most teams taking part simply aren’t bothered. Even the BBC don’t make the cup a priority, keeping their big name pundits for Match of the day, it’s the duty of the football league show team to do the highlights show, implying the likes of Hansen and Shearer would be insulted having to cover a 2nd round league cup game.
The classic league cup encounter that defines the modern era of the competition is the established mid-table premier league team playing their strongest line up and aiming to win the competition against the reserves or second string of a top notch premier league outfit with perhaps a couple of bigger names thrown in who are short on match practise or fitness. Such is the gap between the big clubs and the rest that these second string sides often make it all the way to the final, with Manchester United’s recent success in the competition being the prime example. These matches rarely inspire, they might prove to be even contests but there is nothing to brag about for either side should they gain victory. The competition has no charm about it, there isn’t the magic that comes around every year with the 3rd round of the F.A cup, the league cup is like the uncle that nobody talks to at family gatherings, he’s not unpleasant as such, he’s just really boring and would only provide an unwelcome distraction from what ever else might be happening.
And so we come to Norwich vs. MK Dons in a game which had cup upset written all over it. MK Dons have made a flying start to the season and currently sit top of league one, scoring a hat full of goals along the way. After two encouraging draws Norwich find themselves in the happy situation of mid-table obscurity, a location I’m sure everyone at the football club is hoping they become more accustomed to. Then I hear the Norwich team, 11 changes from the draw at home to Stoke and immediately I know exactly how seriously the club are taking the competition. The performance is flat, it is no surprise given the number of changes, mistakes creep in and before you know what’s going on we’re 2-0 down at half time. The second half brings no reprieve and worse still adding to another 2 poor goals conceded are injuries to Hoolahan and Ayala.
So we’ve lost the game 4-0, how do I feel? Firstly, I feel upset I bothered to go and even more upset that I paid money for the privilege. The attendance for the evening was 13,009 which by Norwich standards is rubbish, but when you have a look at some of the other games it was actually almost impressive. Only 4,755 turned up to see QPR lose 2-0 at home to Rochdale, much to the delight of Neil Warnock who made it quite clear he didn’t care about the cup. 6,777 can say they were there to see Bolton beat Macclesfield 2-1 and 8,607 were in attendance to view Blackburn turn over Sheffield Wednesday 3-1. Times are tough and the recession is biting hard, but with no bums on seats, it means there isn’t much money for the clubs, which means they won’t take it seriously. If going on a cup run isn’t going to generate you any money and could potentially harm your premier league prospects, it’s not a tricky equation for clubs to solve.
The most frustrating part of the evening was the injuries. If you are going to play your second string, send them out there asking them to prove something to you. They all know they aren’t first choice, none of them started the last league game, you’d hope that they would be keen to show just what the manager was missing. Instead you get a game that resembles a friendly, nobody wants to get hurt and it’s strangely inevitable that in those circumstances someone nearly always does. In this instance it was Daniel Ayala who having looked lightweight for most of the evening decided to commit to a 50-50 challenge on the halfway line, a challenge he had no need to make, resulting in a knee injury. It’s a lose-lose scenario, if your players are competitive and committed then there is a higher risk of injury, but even if they aren’t there is still a risk of injury, so you might as well play to win the game, either that or pick a team of youth players who really do have no hope of getting in the 1st team and genuinely have nothing to lose and everything to play for.
None of the other big European leagues have a second domestic cup competition. Most of them also have a winter break. We are a fiercely proud and traditional nation, but when attendances plummet, nobody can afford tickets at prices clubs are willing to charge, when teams no longer treat a cup competition with any respect, when the winners would happily trade in their victory to ensure premier league safety then I think it’s time to bring the cup to an end. There would doubtlessly be a huge outcry, but the ones doing the moaning would probably be the same fans who didn’t bother to attend their teams latest tepid league cup display.
An alternative would be to try and get the cup to matter again, which is a hard recipe to cook up and one that would almost certainly call for an idea that everyone would be reluctant to accept, so here’s one for you: winning the league cup guarantees you a premier league place for next season. If that were the case, I think most clubs would very quickly come around to the idea that the cup meant something and for those in the lower leagues, what better dream than skipping a couple of rungs of the football ladder, perhaps at the expense of the playoffs that year. If you want to breath new life into the competition something needs to change, otherwise it will continue to be the cup nobody watches and nobody wants to win.