What a wet and miserable weekend it has been. I had planned to continue with my boat theme and visit Fareham Town this Saturday but watching the drizzle through the office window all morning I was thinking that I may well need a boat to get to the Cams Alders ground by clocking-off time, and that’s even if the pitch held up (it did and Fareham won 3-2), so for me it was a hot mug of tea indoors whilst poring over my new statistics book.
This wasn’t just any lazy Saturday afternoon though – I had a purpose. Earlier I had been quite uncharitable about Bradford City’s achievement in reaching the final of the League Cup. Rather than being a reflection of Bradford’s skill I thought, it was more of an indictment of how far out of favour the League Cup had fallen. With the ‘big’ clubs fielding weakened sides made up of reserves and youth players then surely the door is open for any-old League two outfit to stroll in and nab the ‘silverware.’
The answer to the question would be in the statistics. One test would be the number of lower-tier clubs reaching the semi-finals of the Cup; If the cup was getting easier we could expect the number of lower division teams reaching the latter-stages of the tournament to be on the increase. The Cup has been running for 52 years now so I divided this into four equal periods of 13 years by way of comparison…..
The Early-Years 1961 – 1973
The League Cup was first proposed as part of a plan to re-organise the four divisions of the football league. Initially the major clubs were rather indifferent to the cup being happy to let the small-fry fight it out between themselves. In it’s second year the cup final was contested by Division Two Norwich and Division Four Rochdale. The turning point for the cup came with the allocation of a European slot for the winners in 1968. This quite evidently piqued the big-boys interest, though the Cup was won that year by Division Three Swindon Town who were subsequently denied the chance to play in Europe due to not being a Division One club.
Getting Serious 1974 – 1986
By the mid 1970s the big clubs have climbed on-board largely displacing the second tier clubs in the race for the semi’s – the number making it to this stage halving from twelve in the previous period to just six. Liverpool – then the biggest fish around – made four consecutive finals between 1981 and 1984, but there are still a handful of third tier clubs making it through and one fourth tier tiddler, Division Four Chester, making it to the semi final stage in 1975.
The disappearance of the minnows 1987 – 1999
Moving to the next period the number of clubs from the top-flight has remained relatively stable; Tier two clubs have staged a fight-back largely at the expense of third tier clubs and fourth tier clubs who have disappeared entirely. Nottingham Forest are the most successful side at this time appearing in three finals and heading off on an open-topped bus with the cup twice.
Mind the gap 2000 – 2012
In the most recent period sides from the top-two tiers can be seen to have tightened their dominance over the semi-final berths. The sole representatives from the lower half of the football league being League Two Wycombe Wanderers who in 2007 went out in their semi to Chelsea 5-1 on aggregate
Harder not easier
So what can we say about these charts. Well, firstly in answer to our original question it seems that the cup is, at least in these latter stages, quite competitive. Despite, as has been suggested, the top clubs effectively tying one hand behind their back by fielding weaker sides – at least in the earlier stages of the competition – the number of top-flight clubs represented in the semi-final stage has stayed the same whilst the number of clubs from the lower half of the professional leagues have declined.
For Bradford, a fourth tier side, this makes their achievement all the more remarkable.