Why the League Cup still matters in English football

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Raheem Sterling lifts the League Cup trophy

For many years, the Football League Cup has been derided as a secondary event in the football calendar. If the media were to be believed, it is closer in prestige to the Charity Shield than the FA Cup and has almost entirely been shunned by the football community.

One of the most damaging elements of the competition’s recent history has been the regular rebranding. From its first sponsor in the 80s, the EFL Cup has been known by numerous uninspiring names: The Milk Cup, Worthington Cup, Capital One Cup and Carabao Cup to name a few. Rarely do these re-brandings add any kudos, or do anything to build the competition’s reputation.

Despite this, the 2019 Carabao Cup final will see two of the top six face off at a sold-out Wembley Stadium for a trophy that nobody claims to want. It is a strange situation, but with all the negative press the competition receives, the biggest clubs in the country are still the ones that end up victorious – eight of the last ten winners were top six teams, and five of those finals were between two of the big clubs, with only Birmingham in 2011 and Swansea in 2013 breaking their domination.

This contradiction seems to embody the competition’s current position in limbo. It is easy to find negative opinions, but why does the competition still matter?

Keeping smaller clubs going

Despite regularly rebranding the competition with new sponsorship, one factor of the competition that seems to remain the same is the relatively low level of prize money. Currently the winner will receive just £100,000. In comparison, the FA Trophy winners take home £60,000 and the FA Cup winner will be awarded £3.6 million.

However, this figure does not include each club’s share of the broadcasting rights and an innovative system for the gate policy. This is where the competition comes into its own for clubs at the lower end of the Football League.

Each club receives an equal share of gate receipts at every stage of the competition. This is currently set at 45%, making a Premier League away draw exciting for both the fans and the club’s finances. Burton Albion manager Nigel Clough has estimated that Albion’s budget for the 2017-18 season was boosted by as much as 20% thanks to their tie against Manchester United.

The money in the competition might be relatively small, but with the top-heavy distribution of money into the game, it is a valuable source of additional income for clubs who might otherwise be struggling to keep the lights on.

Charlton Athletic’s Nicky Ajose in action

Cup runs capture the imagination

Cup competitions might be an unwelcome distraction for clubs at the extreme ends of their respective leagues, but for the majority, the EFL Cup is an opportunity for teams to play without the pressure of their league position weighing on the result.

A cup run or giant-killing has the potential to change the momentum of a club’s season, boosting morale and supporting a charge for promotion. It could be the spark that revives a club’s fortunes and ends a dip in form. It might become a platform for a young player to impress and force their way into the first team, or it might just be a fun away day to a club that are not always on the fixture list.

Off the field, the romantic notion of an FA Cup giant-killing still excites the media, but a similar feat in the EFL Cup is often unfairly dismissed because bigger clubs tend to field ‘weakened’ sides. With Premier League teams having such strong squads, a so-called weak line-up may still include some world-class talent. Derby County found this out when they went to Old Trafford in the third round.

Despite Jose Mourinho making nine changes, Derby prevailed against a team including the likes of  Mata, Lingard, Lukaku and Martial. For United, this result was disappointing but quickly forgotten. For Derby, it is a night that will be long remembered as a key stepping stone of their improvement under Frank Lampard.

A platform for improving the game

As football evolves and adapts through the implementation of technology or the changing demands on elite clubs, there needs to be a platform on which changes can be tested in a competitive setting, and for many years, that has been the EFL Cup. 2018-19 alone has seen the removal of extra time in early rounds and continued VAR trials. Previously, the addition of a fourth substitute in extra time was also a great success and is fast becoming common practice in the World Cup and Champions League.

“Experimenting with adjustments to the games rules are just as important to the growth of football as the use of technology to help officials.” said Harrod Sport Sales and Marketing Executive Kate Pasque. “From changing rules around extra time to trialling the ABBA penalty shoot-out, the EFL Cup remains a valuable platform on which to innovate and help improve the game for everyone.”

The idea of removing the EFL Cup from the calendar because it is inconvenient to bigger clubs ignores the many benefits the competition has for the majority of professional football clubs in England. While it may be portrayed as a nuisance and unwelcome obligation in the press, the opportunity for smaller clubs to play in domestic cup competitions are increasingly slim. The introduction of Premier League U-23 teams to the Checkatrade Trophy has made it even harder for lower-level clubs to realistically play for silverware each season.

It will never be an elite trophy, but its contributions to lower league football, and as a platform for innovation at the highest levels, means that the EFL Cup still has an important role to play in the future of English football.

This article was brought to you by Late Tackle football magazine, the national football fanzine, 'by fans for fans'.
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