15 years ago the League Cup was in trouble, the games were being played by Premier League development squads and there was nervous talk of the competition losing its UEFA cup berth. The cup has always borne the name of its sponsor but in a difficult climate for the competition signing a sponsorship deal with Worthington’s Bitter was a PR disaster. Talk of the ‘Worthless Cup’ and ‘isn’t that a Rugby League cup?’ seemed to render the competition a joke. Moving the final exclusively to Sky was roundly criticised whilst the FA Cup remained on terrestrial television.
Yet now the EFL Cup is thriving, it continues to provide a pathway to Europe whilst the FA Cup looks to be in terminal decline. Amazingly the turnaround in fortunes isn’t due to any radical change in the EFL Cup (other than the name). The one attempt to alter the competition was a a short lived experiment in seeding the draw.
There are several reasons the sands have shifted in favour of the EFL Cup. One is the competition taking place in the first half of the season means teams are becoming more inclined to play strong (but not full strength sides), knowing you can make a semi final before Christmas means teams are more inclined to pick good teams where as the FA Cup comes in the New Year after the exhausting Christmas period and with the business end of the Champions League to commence.
Another is the competition is not wedded to nostalgia the way the FA Cup has become. The competitions high water mark came in the late 80s when English clubs exclusion from Europe meant the second cup competition took on added value. Despite the lack of nostalgia the League Cup in its various guises (Milk Cup, Littlewoods Cup, Rumbelows Cup) provided many small clubs with their only major cup win- Oxford United, Luton Town & Norwich all won this competition, meanwhile the biggest cup shock in living memory was provided by York City who hilariously stuffed Man United 3-0 at Old Trafford and then held on against a full strength Cantona lead United for a 4-3 aggregate win.
Despite these amazing highs the Cup remains steadfastly focussed on the present whilst the FA Cup is dependant on rekindling memories of Sunderland winning in 1973, Ronnie Radford’s rocket and Ricky Villa’s dribble in ’81.
Many felt moving the final exclusively to Sky would marginalise the competition. But with Sky no longer screening the FA Cup or Champions League the EFL Cup has become a key part of the broadcasters Football package rather than a side show.
We’ve also seen consistently good finals and dramatic 2 legged semi finals including a spate of Manchester derbies and fourth tier Bradford’s run to the final in 2013. By comparison in the last 2 decades the FA Cup has served up 1 great final (West Ham 3-3 Liverpool), one great upset final (Wigan in 2013) a handful of good finals and a boatload of duds.
The third round with the European qualifiers added into the mix is usually fun to watch, this week will see Leicester possibly giving Kelechi Iheanacho his first start against Liverpool who will likely give promising strikers Ben Woodburn and Dom Solanke starts. Meanwhile high flying Man City face a tricky trip to West Brom and Barnsley becoming the first side to play a third round cup tie away at Wembley. Perhaps most intriguingly Burnley record signing Chris Wood will have a reunion with his old employers Leeds.
Between now and spring this competition should give us some fun games, new stars breaking through and probably a good final and semi finals. I picked Everton to win it in preseason but currently fancy Spurs making the final a home game.