The League Cup; worthwhile route into Europe or a tournament too many?

It's probably fair to say that, over the last few years particularly, the reputation of the Football League Cup has taken something of a nosedive. As the financial rewards of being involved in the Champions League get greater and greater the clubs who regularly take part are forced to prioritise their aims for each season, and often an extra half-a-dozen games are deemed an unwelcome distraction.

The tournament was introduced in 1960 and seen as a good opportunity for clubs, many of whose grounds were now equipped with floodlights, to earn extra revenue via midweek games though the winter months. Aston Villa took the trophy during its inaugural season, beating Rotherham 3-2, the finals then being contested over two legs, something scrapped in 1969, with one-off Wembley showcases becoming the norm.

During the early days of the competition many sides outside of the then First Division didn't take part. On a UEFA Cup place being awarded from its conception in 1971, however, teams began to see the tournament as a good chance for European qualification. Nowadays only England and France are awarded European slots for their secondary cup competition, something UEFA are said to have been looking to change.

Of late, some clubs, particularly the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United, who are more-or-less guaranteed to qualify for Europe through the league, have taken to fielding second-strength sides right the way through to the final. To some degree this is understandable, but as the importance of staying in the big league grows, sides who are perhaps struggling for points have also deemed it a tournament too many, and see their quest for forty points as much more important.

I have to confess that i'm not a huge League Cup fan, but as the years roll by and our relatively-empty trophy cabinet gains nothing but dust, i'm actually quite glad that we seem to be having a go this season. The home draw against Scunthorpe should represent a good chance of us making the quarter-finals, and with several of the sides left in the hat seeing it as third, even fourth priority, we could, in theory, be in with a shout of a trip to Wembley.

Our disappointing cup runs have become par for the course, but the run of bad luck has to end somewhere, and i'm sure that at some point we'll at least break our quarter-final hoodoo. Even just mooching back through our very recent history in the competition is quite embarrassing. Early round exits to the likes of Brighton, Chesterfield, Doncaster, Wigan (then in the Championship), and Arsenal's reserves. The 0-2 defeat to our old cup foes Spurs just before Christmas of 2007 being the only time we've ventured anywhere near the business end of matters.

It does surprise me that so many see it as being unfashionable, even irrelevant. For a club like us it should be an obvious target every season. Firstly, it would be some silverware, albeit not the title or FA Cup it would still bring an end to our now 34-year drought. It also could provide some sort of insurance should the unlikely and unthinkable happen and we begin to struggle in the league and fall short in attaining a top six/seven position.

As things stand there just seems to be a real malaise around the whole thing. Players don't see it as the be all and end all, managers mostly don't welcome it, even some of those outside of the Premier League, and attendance are well down. I'm not sure what can really be done about rebuilding its reputation. It's been re-branded several times, and as spoken about above, the ultimate prizes; a trip to Wembley, a cup, and European qualification, are significant.

The problem might be, firstly, the prize money. The FA Cup winners get the best part of £2m, whereas Carling, the cup's current sponsors, award just £100k, and teams reaching the Second Round of the FA Cup would expect to earn more than beaten semi-finalists in it's less-prestigious sister competition. Whether clubs enter cups primarily for financial rewards is debatable, at the top level at least, but i'm sure prize money is an important part to many.

The main problem i have with the thing, though, is that the Europa League/UEFA Cup is/has been such a poor competition for so long that qualifying to play in it now means very little. Our run in it last season proved enjoyable, but with so many games involved in winning it, and so much travelling for teams to do, it's often, like the League Cup itself, deemed an inconvenience. If the cronies at UEFA could reformat their second European competition, and clubs could compete in it without having to play what is in effect another half-a-season on top of their domestic fixtures then qualifying for it, and the methods of doing so, might be deemed a little more worthwhile.

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