OPINION: Scrapping League Cup would give clubs breathing space
Do you remember Swindon Town of the then Third Division '” the third tier of English football '” lifting the 1969 League Cup after one of the greatest giantkilling acts in our national game?
Swindon, inspired by Don Rogers, defeated mighty First Division club Arsenal 3-1, humbling the illness-hit Gunners in heavy rain on a mudbath pitch.
Not many football fans do, even those with rose-tinted, nostalgia-laden spectacles like myself, who love a delve back into the past and the ‘good old days’.
Do you remember Bradford City, again from the third tier, making the 2013 final, defeating Premier League Aston Villa in the semi-final before a 5-0 trouncing by Swansea City at Wembley in the final?
No, to be honest, I had also forgotten. Just like I had forgotten that a year later MK Dons defeated a youthful, but still strong, Manchester United in the opening round. I say defeated, but actually they hammered them 4-0!
The reason those giantkillings don’t seem to stay in the memory banks of the neutrals is because the competition has never had the romance and general appeal of the FA Cup.
We might have forgotten Swindon’s 1969 heroes, but I bet, like me, that many of you will recall the day non-league Hereford United, for example, knocked then top-tier, First Division Newcastle United out of the FA Cup.
Ronnie Radford’s screaming 25-yard drive to equalise England international Malcolm McDonald’s late goal lives long in the memory, as does Ricky George’s winner for the minnows.
We may have forgotten already Bradford’s run to the 2013 final, but many more fans will recall Chesterfield’s FA Cup semi-final adventure, even though that was almost 20 years ago.
That is one of the reasons why, reluctantly, I think it might be time for footballing authorities to scrap the League Cup — or whatever it is called these days after it has undergone more regenerations than Dr Who because of sponsorship requirements.
Giving the winners an automatic place in the Champions League, scrapping replays , regionalising the early rounds, scrapping the two-legged opening round — none of the recent changes have made the competition more appealing to the fans, clubs or players.
This year’s competition was seen as even more of an irrelevance by lower league clubs because of the changes to the EFL Trophy and the addition of two more matches into the football calendar.
No wonder so many managers ‘experimented’ with their team selections for the matches. No wonder there were so many empty seats in the stands up and down the country — for example, just 1,400 watched Chesterfield lose at Rochdale.
If the clubs and players are not going to treat the League Cup as a major priority than why will the fans?
Even the final no longer has top billing on the day it is held as it vies for TV coverage with the Premier League.
I know that traditionalists — like I usually am — will scream foul. I know it gives some lower league clubs the chance to topple ‘the big boys’ or go to grounds that they would normally not get the chance to visit.
For example, in this year’s second round League Two Accrington Stanley toppled Premier League Burnley and League One Gillingham won at top-tier Watford.
And in the first round Stevenage from League Two went to Championship Ipswich and won, while Cambridge — also from the fourth level of English football — pulled off a surprise by toppling Sheffield Wednesday from two leagues higher.
Not to mention Luton Town’s fightback to continue Aston Villa’s slide from the Premier League to Championship mediocrity.
As a Mansfield Town fan and reporter back in the 1980s I was lucky enough to go to Stamford Bridge, for example, as the Stags held the stars of the then First Division 2-2 at home and then lost 2-0 in London. No disgrace, a great evening out and great memories — for players, the club and fans alike.
So I fully appreciate the excitement that this competition can bring.
But in these days of an ever-expanding football schedule — and the opportunity for fans to watch the topsclubs live every weekend via their television screens — not to mention the cost of leisure activities in general, perhaps it is time to end the competition and let the FA Cup have an even greater focus.
The FA Cup is fighting hard for relevance and exposure as the Premier League sweeps all before it.
Scrapping the League Cup might give it a boost as well as allowing lower league clubs a little breathing space in the hectic list of matches now added to by the minimum three games in the EFL Trophy.