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