The Difficult Past and Uncertain Future of the English Football League Cup

Without the fig leaf of a corporate sponsor the EFL Cup – as it has been branded this season – seems decidedly bare. For this pioneer of corporate sponsorship there are no ribbons in corporate colours, no promotional tie-ins and no cup final tickets reserved for executives and lucky competition winners. In all it is an even more depressing and dour affair than it has been in recent years. Some salvation may be at hand, thanks to a new sponsor, Thai energy drink company Carabao and from June 2017 the EFL Cup will become the Carabao Cup, until at least 2020, but whilst the deal may safeguard the cup for a few more years, the vultures will undoubtedly continue to circle as in an age when the FA Cup is struggling to find space in both congested fixture lists and the hearts of fans a second major domestic cup – a rarity in European football – looks increasingly anachronistic.

Question marks over the cups continued existence are also by no means a recent phenomenon and at least some of its current problems can be traced back to the circumstances surrounding the cups birth. Initially proposed by Football League Secretary Alan Hardaker the cup was merely one element of a package of reform aimed at rejuvenating English football and halting the slide which had begun to set in after the immediate post-war boom years.

The main thrust of Hardaker’s plans involved a restructuring of the league into five divisions of twenty clubs, reducing each clubs number of fixtures. As a compensatory measure for the clubs Hardaker put forward the idea of a new cup competition involving League clubs, to be played as a pre-season contest.

Hardaker’s restructuring plan would however, be rejected by the clubs. They were though receptive to the idea of the League Cup, which received approval at the League’s annual meeting of 1960. A further deviation from Hardaker’s master plan saw the cup instituted as mid-week contest during the regular season, played under the floodlights which had become prevalent at league grounds over the preceding decade. An ironic twist being that the cup, part of reforms aimed at easing fixture congestion, actually acted to increase the fixture burden.

Although it counted Football League President Joe Richards among its supporters (Richards had purchased the trophy with his own money and had his name engraved upon it) when it was launched in the 1960/61 season the cup encountered its share of indifference. Of the 92 eligible clubs 87 signed up to compete in its first year and by its third year this was down to only 80 clubs. Overall the big clubs viewed the contest with such disinterest that lesser sides were able to prosper and in the first year Division Two Rotherham United made the final whilst in its second year the final was contested by Division Two Norwich and Division Four Rochdale.

Soon dubbed ‘Hardaker’s Folly’ by its detractors prospects for the cup looked bleak indeed. That the cup is still around today is thanks largely to two developments; A Wembley final and the prize of a UEFA cup slot for the winners, the latter secured by Hardaker’s strong-arming of UEFA. 97,952 people attended the first Wembley final in 1967 between Queens Park Rangers and West Bromwich Albion, beating the combined attendance of the two legs of the previous year’s final by over 37,000. The two sides provided a spectacle fit for the grand venue as West Bromwich established a two goal lead, only to see third-tier QPR stage a remarkable comeback. Headlines were assured when it was the appropriately named Mark Lazarus who won the game by netting QPR’s winner in the 81st minute.

This medicine seemed to have had the desired effect and by the early 1970s the cup was enjoying something of a golden age. The most striking piece of evidence of this being the appearance of Chelsea on Top of the Pops, performing their cup final song Blue is The Colour, released to mark their appearance in the 1972 final which reached a chart high of number 5. The 1980s though proved a more difficult time for the cup – and for football in general. Attendances slumped for both cup fixtures and league games, but even in this environment the cup retained its prestige as a respected part of the English game whilst successfully pioneering corporate sponsorship with a landmark deal during the 1981-82 season with the Milk Marketing Board which led to the cup being officially renamed as the Milk Cup .

A new challenge awaited in the 1990s as the coming of the Premier League era saw an increasing shift in clubs priorities towards the ever more lucrative league programme. Manchester United and Arsenal among those who took to fielding cobbled together sides of fringe players and youth players in league cup fixtures – a practice which could, on occasion, spectacularly backfire – such as in 1995 when a weakened Manchester United found themselves being turned over 3-0 by third-tier strugglers York City in front of a stunned Old Trafford in the first leg of their second round tie.

The further expansion of the Champions League in 1999 only added to the cups problems; Not only did it increase the fixture burden of top clubs, but it also greatly devalued the UEFA qualification slot as many more sides could expect to qualify for Europe through the league. Then in the 2001/02 season the cup underwent some drastic pruning at the roots, first and second round matches changing from 2-legged to single games. At a stroke this reduced the competition from 154 games the season before to just 93 games.

In recent years the cup has continued to experience of criticism and disrespect from clubs, managers, players, pundits and fans alike. It is though not without its friends, or even its redeeming features: It is still competitive in the very latter stages, the relatively cheap tickets provide an opportunity for those who might otherwise be priced out of grounds whilst for fans of some Premiership sides the cup retained value as being the one major title within their reach in an era of growing inequality. As pundit Colin Murray pointed out in 2014 the cup “is one trophy Premier League teams outside of the big guns have a real chance of capturing.”

It is therefore a worrying sign when in 2016 for a fourth round game at their St. Marys ground attendance was low enough for the club to close an entire stand to the public, whilst on the field manager Claude Puel announced nine changes from their previous league game. Such indifference at a club like Southampton, whose last major honour was in 1976, serves to highlight the stiff battle for survival the cup faces beyond 2020. To stand any chance the competition must find a new way of being relevant to both clubs and fans alike.

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