As the Carling Cup got underway this week, only to be overshadowed by a half-decent England performance in the Netherlands, the perennial question of the competition’s validity in modern day football arises yet again.
Since the arrival of the Premier League and the glut of money that surrounds it, even the most committed of top-flight strugglers find it necessary to field weakened sides full of youngsters in a confusing effort to preserve their key players. Such is the importance of Premier League money for the survival of many clubs, relegation battles have come to mean so much more than domestic glory.
Older supporters amongst us will have some great memories of the League Cup (pre-sponsorship) and the fantastic battles it produced. In an era when heavy drinkers and horse followers dominated the competition, even the final would go to a second replay and the fans absolutely adored it.
The three games between Aston Villa and Everton in 1977 were equally as exciting as Liverpool’s European Cup victory over Borussia Monchengladbach or the FA Cup final that saw Manchester United dent the treble hopes of the Anfield outfit.
Even as recently as 1997, Leicester City needed a second game to see off a Middlesborough side that ultimately lost two domestic cup finals in the same season. Even as little as 10 years ago, people and players still cared!
It’s hard to believe that the League Cup really used to matter to supporters, or to teams for that matter. I remember the joy of Andy Gray in 1980 as he scored against reigning European Champions, Nottingham Forest, in a fantastic final. There was the magic of the 1988 showpiece that produced one of the best games in living memory as Luton finally toppled Arsenal by 3 goals to 2. Even the dominance of Liverpool in the competition throughout the early 1980’s proved how important the competition had come to be.
That’s why I was delighted to see the Carling Cup throw up some great games during the week. Only one game needed penalties to decide things and no fewer than eleven games provided 4 or more goals. The one thing that the competition managed to do was provide entertainment and that’s why fans turn up for matches.
Unfortunately, the big boys have let the news filter down to the lower tiers about the lack of importance of Carling Cup football and the fans continue to stay away from the early stages of the competition in large numbers. It’s a real shame, because the League Cup says much more about football tradition than trudging around Europe on a weekly basis ever will.