What future for the EFL Cup?

EVER SINCE the League Cup was introduced, its future has never felt totally secure. Back in the 1960s, some teams declined to enter, some managers complained about fixture congestion, other clubs damaged the credibility of the competition by fielding scratch sides and now, clubs playing in Europe effectively get seeded. There’s no denying the League Cup will always play second fiddle to the FA Cup, but in today’s environment, because of the overwhelming focus on the Premier, the competition now almost seems like an inconvenience to some clubs.

However, anyone who believes the League Cup is not taken seriously by the top clubs should take a look at the participants in recent finals. In six of the last 10, two teams from the so-called “big six” have met in the final. For seven of the last eight, the cup has been won by Manchester clubs and over 20 years, the elite half dozen have won 15. Not interested? Think again.

The issue is that the biggest clubs do not need to field their strongest teams to win the cup, indeed you could argue that the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea could actually field below-strength sides in the league and still make a challenge. 

This year’s last four features three London clubs, only the fourth time this has happened (1971-72, 2006-07 and 2007-08 are the others). In theory, the cup should be won by a side from the capital, but in 1972 when Chelsea, Tottenham and West Ham made the semi-finals, the eventual winner was unfancied Stoke City! 

There will be no shortage of motivation from at least two of the three Londoners, Tottenham and Arsenal are both eager to win anything at the moment, especially Spurs, who don’t need any reminding that their last trophy was in 2008 and was the Football League Cup. Chelsea will stand in their way in the semi-final, a team that has lost its early season verve and is suffering from illness and injury. How they could do with some of the many players they have out of loan across Europe.

Arsenal will meet Liverpool in the other semi-final. Jürgen Klopp’s side will start as favourites, but you sense the amiable German is tiring a little of the English system and its somewhat intense fixture programme. A North London derby at Wembley could be the outcome of two semi-finals in which two clubs may have other priorities.

But are people like Thomas Tuchel and Jürgen Klopp justified in questioning the number of games being played? The xenophobes would say that foreign managers knew the score when they arrived in England, but if too many games breeds fatigue and below-par performances, are they actually harming the quality of the product on offer? Let’s not forget that coaches like Tuchel and Klopp are, in their own way, perfectionists.

The Football League Cup may be superfluous in the modern game, but they are surely more worthwhile than the expensive overseas tours some clubs embark on in order to expand their global brand. One way to ease the situation could be to reduce the size of the divisions in England, the Premier/EFL constitution is still too weighty, even though some would argue it is the essence of English football, the body of 92. However, everyone has been talking about too much football since the 1960s and lo and behold, we now have more games now than they ever did in the pre-television era. At all levels, there seems to be a reluctance to reduce leagues due to a loss of income, yet is there not an argument that less football makes the game more unique and therefore, attendances could, feasibly, increase?

One of the League Cup’s charms is the two-legged semi-final, although this format also has its critics. But the alternative is yet another two games at Wembley, which would bring in the crowds – and money – but take away a unique aspect of the competition.

Traditionalists will, surely, hope the League Cup survives. The competition, in 2018-19 (the last time normal conditions existed), drew an average gate of around 14,000 – that was higher than the FA Cup (round one to final). The competition still has substance.

1971: Geoffrey and Gordon

ONE OF the privileges of being born in the late 1950s was that your formative years, from a footballing perspective, were the late 1960s and early 1970s. This was a great time for English football as the nation basked in the glow of World Cup 1966.

As the passage of time moves on, and history plays tricks with the memory, sometimes you have to remind yourself that over the course of your spectating career, you may well have seen some true greats of the game. Of course, when you are young, you take it for granted, but when people refer to players like Bobby Moore, Martin Peters, Bobby Charlton and others from ’66, you realize that you probably saw all of them in their pomp.

In December 1971, West Ham were lining up to play Stoke City in the second leg of the Football League Cup semi-final. The Hammers had won the first meeting at the Victoria Ground 2-1, so they were favourites to reach the final to meet either Chelsea or Tottenham.

The game was the talk of school, largely because there were a number of West Ham fans around and also because of the promise of Wembley, which was then still a prized venue and not the everyday location it has become in football today. A small group of us decided to travel up to the East End to watch the game after school – a grand adventure on the District Line from Upminster to Upton Park.

A cold, December evening, slight mist in the air, undoubtedly frost to come, accompanied the journey. There used to be something special about floodlit games at West Ham and the atmosphere around Upton Park was of great expectations – the Hammers about to clinch a place at Wembley. Obviously everyone with claret and blue in their veins wanted to be there to witness this, for the pushing and shoving was like a huge rugby scrum without the manners. The air was thick with an intoxicating brew of halitosis, alcohol, cigarettes, onions, chewing gum and body-odour (this was, after all, the days before personal hygiene and only ‘pansies’ wore deodorant). Oh the rich aroma of a football crowd!

We wedged ourselves into the ground and found a position behind the goal in West Ham’s infamous North Bank. There was a myriad of Dickensian characters in the crowd, donkey jackets and Dr.Martens being the order of the day. The language was strictly Anglo-Saxon. In the Evening News that night, England skipper Bobby Moore had urged Upton Park to get behind the team, something the West Ham crowd never had much trouble doing, and when he took the field, he gestured to the all sides of the ground to make some noise. I remember someone standing behind me saying that he hoped the “’ammers” would play Chelsea in the final because he wanted to give those “cocky b****** a good hiding on the train up to Wembley”. I shivered, not because of the cold, but because I was also hoping West Ham would reach the final to play Chelsea…because I felt the Blues would easily beat Bobby Moore and co.

“I’m forever blowing bubbles….we’re on our way to Wembley…..Bobby, Bobby, Bobby Moore…..”, the North Bank was in fine voice as the game got underway, the crowd swaying with every move, necks craning to see the ball played down the touchlines, footings lost as the ball rained in on the penalty area. The ground was packed solid, 38,771 people inside, most of whom were trying to will West Ham to Wembley.

In the first half, West Ham created chance-after-chance, but Geoff Hurst, Trevor Brooking and Clyde Best were all generous to Stoke. There was a degree of frustration setting in, West Ham couldn’t kill-off Stoke and with 17 minutes remaining, a  cross by the pipe-smoking Stoke captain, Peter Dobing was shot low into the net by John Ritchie to give Stoke the lead and level the aggregate: 2-2.

West Ham were gifted the chance to equalize with three minutes to go as Gordon Banks brought down Harry Redknapp. A penalty – with Banks defending the North Bank end.  Surely “Geoffrey” would score the goal that would take West Ham to the Empire Stadium? Tension built. Hurst picked up the ball, puffed his cheeks as he was prone to do and smiled at his old England mucker. He shot with force, his customary approach to spot-kicks, but Banks stopped it, pushing the ball into the glow of the floodlights. It was a tremendous stop and killed the atmosphere in the North Bank stone dead. You could hear a Stanley Knife drop.

Given we had to get home, and school the next day, we didn’t really need the inconvenience of extra time, but we got our bonus 30 minutes. No further score, the home players had their heads down, Stoke were looking forward to a replay. The night belonged to Gordon Banks, England’s World Champion goalkeeper. And a few weeks later, the tie was Stoke’s and on March 4, 1972, so too was the Football League Cup. They beat Chelsea 2-1 to claim the only piece of silverware they have ever won. I’ve always blamed Geoff Hurst for that….

** For the record, on the same night, Tottenham won 2-0 in Bucharest against Rapid, “the dirtiest side I’ve seen”, according to Bill Nicholson. And Panathinaikos and Nacional (Uruguay) drew 1-1 in Athens in a typically bad tempered World Club Championship first leg tie.

Photo: PA

Tottenham Hotspur 1970-73 – Bill Nick’s final flourish

IT IS hardly surprising, but when Tottenham Hotspur’s great teams and players are discussed, the conversation rarely moves beyond 1951 and 1961. The latter’s achievement, the then-hallowed double, would be something of a millstone round the neck of the club and its long-serving manager, Bill Nicholson, but 10 years on, Spurs did manage to rekindle some of the lustre of old and put together a team that could look Danny Blanchflower’s side in the eye.

Admittedly, Spurs never won the league, but they picked up two Football League Cups and the first ever UEFA Cup in between. With a little more consistency, they might have achieved more, but between 1970 and 1972, Spurs played some great football and had some excellent players in their ranks. In fact, the sequence of three cup wins might have been four if they had not come up against the total footballers of Feyenoord in the 1974 UEFA Cup final, an occasion that proved to be the catalyst for ending Nicholson’s distinguished career.

(L-R) Tottenham Hotspur’s Alan Mullery, Joe Kinnear and manager Bill Nicholson show off the League Cup after their team’s 2-0 win

Post-double stress

Nicholson’s team of the early 1960s, quite rightly, is compared to the all-time greats. But even with the addition of Jimmy Greaves in 1962, Spurs could not recreate that golden era. As the 1960s wore on, Spurs slipped from their pedestal, although they won the European Cup Winners Cup in 1963 and finished League runners-up the same year. As the double team broke up, Spurs found it hard to replace them and by the end of the 1960s, they were struggling to hang on to a top six place. In 1969-70, they finished 11th, their lowest position since 1958-59. That season had seen the spirit of “Glory Glory” further eroded with the departure of Jimmy Greaves to West Ham, in an exchange deal that brought the younger and more virile Martin Peters to White Hart Lane. The 1969-70 season saw Spurs score just 54 goals in the league, a post-war low. Greaves was past his best and the man who many saw as his heir, Martin Chivers, was still trying to establish himself, more than two years after joining from Southampton. Another icon from the old days, Dave Mackay, had also gone, lured to Brian Clough’s Derby where he built a new swansong career. With players like Pat Jennings, Cyril Knowles, Mike England, Alan Mullery and Alan Gilzean, there was no shortage of quality, but Spurs lacked strength in depth and a real cutting edge. There was no hint, in the summer of 1970, that Nicholson’s frustrations were at an end.

With Greaves gone…

tot_002_martin_chiversMartin Harcourt Chivers (where did he get that middle name from?), when he joined Spurs, was seen as a major signing to trigger off a new Spurs. He played a key role in Southampton’s promotion to the top division in 1966, scoring 29 goals, but in the first division, he was overshadowed by Ron Davies. He netted 118 league goals in 278 games for the Saints, commanding a record £ 125,000 fee from big-spending Spurs. Injuries and a loss of confidence plagued Chivers in his first two seasons at Spurs, but when Greaves departed, he stepped out of the shadows.

There was an added reason for Spurs to step up a gear in the summer of 1970. Arsenal had won the Inter Cities Fairs Cup in 1969-70 and Chelsea had lifted the FA Cup. Spurs were in danger of being upstaged in the capital. With Chivers fit, Peters acclimatised and young talent like Steve Perryman now part of the first team, along with England regular Mullery, Spurs had a revitalised team. Nobody gave them much chance of anything at the start of 1970-71, in London all eyes were on Chelsea, who many felt would push on from their FA Cup win and make a real fist of a title challenge.

New cups for old – 1970-71

Spurs started slowly, with a 2-2 draw with West Ham at White Hart Lane, Alan Gilzean scoring both goals. At the beginning of September, they were beaten at Arsenal, who were shaping up well for the new season. Then Spurs went on an impressive run, beating Liverpool, Manchester City and, at the start of November, put on a sparkling performance for the TV cameras against Burnley. It was a 4-0 win for Nicholson’s resurgent team and Perryman’s display – capped by a nicely created goal – announced his arrival. Spurs has to travel to Chelsea, who were also clicking into gear, although not as comfortably as they had been in 1969-70. Spurs were in third place, two points behind leaders Leeds and two ahead of Chelsea in fourth. Over 61,000 people saw a game played in attritional mud and Spurs snatched the points with two injury time goals. People now started to take notice of Spurs.

But it was the Football League Cup that was to provide Spurs with a taste of glory. They eased their way through the competition thanks to home ties against Swansea City (3-0), Sheffield United (2-1), West Bromwich Albion (5-0) and Coventry (4-1), Peters and Chivers scored hat-tricks in the latter of those games. That run put Spurs into the semi-finals against Bristol City of the second divison.

The first leg at Ashton Gate ended 1-1, making Spurs red hot favourites to win through. And that they did, by 2-0, with Chivers and Jimmy Pearce scoring. Their opponents would be third division Aston Villa. Spurs only had to make sure they didn’t treat Villa lightly to win the Football League Cup for the first time.

They made hard work of it, though. Needless to say, the matchwinner was Chivers, who could do no wrong in 1970-71. He was now an England international, in fact, Spurs provided three of Sir Alf Ramsey’s new England –  Mullery, Peters, Chivers were the new Moore-Hurst-Peters! Chivers scored 34 times that season.

Spurs won 2-0 at Wembley, two Chivers goals in the second half killing off a spirited Villa side. While their league form stuttered, they recovered their poise to end the season with just one defeat in 13 games, finishing third behind Arsenal and Leeds. It hurt, a little, that the Gunners won the title at White Hart Lane, and went on to secure the double, thus equalling Spurs’ 1961 record. Spurs, though, were back in Europe.

Tottenham Hotspur’s Martin Peters glances a header goalwards

The European canon is here – 1971-72

Nicholson strengthened his squad with the signing of Burnley’s Ralph Coates in the summer of 1971. It was London’s biggest transfer of the close season and once more underlined Spurs as the “Bank of England club”. Nicholson liked to make a statement signing every year to sell season tickets. Coates was one of those players that stayed with an unfashionable club for perhaps too long – a la Rodney Marsh and Don Rogers – but he was also another England international.

Alan Mullery flies in with a header to beat Wolves goalkeeper Phil Parkes and open the scoring with a goal for Spurs after 29 minutes of the UEFA Cup final.

Goal magazine tipped Spurs to win the Football League Championship, but they were never consistent enough to mount a serious challenge. It didn’t help that £ 190,000 capture Coates took time to settle.

In the UEFA Cup, they enjoyed a roller-coaster ride to the final. Keflavik of Iceland were no problem, Spurs winning through to the tune of 15-1 on aggregate over the two legs. Then came Nantes of France, who gave Spurs two tough games and only went out 1-0 on aggregate, Peters scoring the only goal in the second leg at White Hart Lane.

Two bruising encounters with Romanians Rapid Bucharest followed, with Nicholson incensed after the second meeting that his team had been kicked and punched for 90 minutes. But Spurs won 5-0 on aggregate, so the last laugh was on them.

Another Romanian side, UT Arad, were next, with Spurs doing all the hard work in the first leg, winning 2-0 away and overall, 3-1 on aggregate. It set them up with a semi-final against Italians AC Milan. This was a severe test for Nicholson’s side. Perryman was the hero at White Hart Lane, scoring twice as Spurs beat the Serie A aristocrats 2-1. Mullery, who had been out on loan to Fulham to help him recover from a pelvic injury, came back to score at the San Siro in a 1-1 draw. The fires were burning on the terraces as Spurs hung on to claim a famous win.

If there was disappointment, it was because the final was between two English clubs. Wolves had won through against some tough opposition and were worthy of their place, but it just didn’t seem like a European final. The first leg at Molineux was won 2-1 by Spurs, which almost killed the tie. Chivers was on song, scoring both goals (his tally reached 44 in 1971-72). In the return, Mullery headed Spurs in front early on and the late Davd Wagstaffe levelled for Wolves, who then battered the home defence. Spurs held out and won their second piece of European silverware.

Coates pays the rent – 1972-73

Having won the League Cup and UEFA Cup, Spurs almost won both in 1972-73. Their league form was marginally better than mid-table, but they won the League Cup again by beating Norwich at Wembley by 1-0. Coates scored the winning goal to repay some of that huge fee. In the UEFA Cup, they were denied a place in the final against Borussia Moenchengladbach by League Champions Liverpool. They lost the first leg 1-0 at Anfield and although they won 2-1 in the second meeting, the Reds won through on the away goals rule.


FeyenoorsIn 1973-74, London football took a sharp downturn and Tottenham’s domestic form was no exception. But in the UEFA Cup they enjoyed another good run, beating Grasshoppers Zurich, Aberdeen, Tbilisi, FC Koln and Lokomotiv Leipzig on the way to the final. There they met Feyenoord, a well-tooled outfit with half the Dutch national team in its line-up. Spurs were held 2-2 at home before losing 2-0 in Rotterdam amid crowd violence and pleas from Nicholson for calm. The behaviour of the Spurs fans and growing disillusion at the way the game was developing led their manager to call it a day only a fortnight into the following season. In 1977, Spurs were relegated.

The Spurs team of the early 1970s had some moments of sheer brilliance, but they were forever in the shadow of Nicholson’s first great side. Players like Chivers, Peters, Jennings, England and Mullery remain ingrained in the club’s folklore. They didn’t quite have what it took to be title contenders, but in those days, a trophy a year was an impressive feat. It would be today…


Photos: PA