Apparently much more important than you'd previously thought
It’s been much maligned over the course of the past few years as an inferior relation to the other, more popular, more rewarding versions on which it’s modelled, and for once we’re not talking about our Tinder accounts. 2016’s never-ending festival of football hoves into view this week with the League Cup semi-finals, which see Liverpool travel to Stoke and Manchester City to Everton.
Arsene Wenger once dismissed the competition, saying that winning it wouldn’t constitute the end of his trophy drought. But it’s an increasingly attractive competition to players coaches and fans alike, mainly because it’s bloody sympathetic to European involvement (clubs involved in European competition tend to get byes to the third round), youth development (no one ever got fined for playing the kids in the league cup — it used to be sponsored by MILK for crying out loud) and, above all, it gives you a second chance at a semi-final if you lose the first time out.
There’s no easy competition to win, obviously, but you can win the league cup having only played six matches, which doesn’t feel like that many given the whole thing’s over and done with by the end of February — the lack of distraction at the business end of the league season being another positive.
Remarkably for something viewed as the country’s third competition, the league cup is essentially the same as the FA Cup, and luckily for you, we're about to explain why. If you’re a Premier League team, you enter at the third round, playing potentially six matches to get to the final (though lower Premier League teams may play seven to get to the league cup final). Arguably, the league cup is an even more attractive route to the final - the odds of meeting teams from lower leagues are higher right through to the latter stages, given the regularity with which weakened top-flight teams are knocked out.
There are other reasons to be cheerful as well. The same prestigious Wembley final, which, if you win, rewards you with that equivalent of an XXXL jumper from a relative at Christmas with no gift receipt — a Europa League place. And although in previous years the runner-up would get this place if the winner went on to qualify elsewhere, that won’t happen this year (perhaps even more attractive). Beyond the (albeit rich) history and the fact the whittling down of minnows starts much earlier, there really isn’t much to choose between the two*.
But you really can’t imagine such a major furore in 1999-00 - nor now, for that matter - were Manchester United boycotting the Capital One Cup, instead of the FA Cup, and that’s not just because they don’t have a prayer of getting near Club World Cup territory any time soon. The prize money might be significantly less in the league cup (£100,000 to the winner), but that’s the only major difference and really, it’s as little as makes no difference to teams in the Championship or Premier League.
And the league cup is starting to take on a particular significance of its own (not before time). Let’s take Liverpool. For Jurgen Klopp, a Premier League title challenge looks unlikely and Friday’s FA Cup tie at Exeter City could be tricky if his side take another chastening beating at the hands of Stoke tonight. Which is entirely possible, given the state of THAT defence, up against one of the league’s most entertaining attacks. A win in a semi-final though, could be a significant lift. A final, and a trophy would alter the appraisal of his first season in charge, not least because it’d largely be achieved without three of his four main striking options and this part of it won’t involve losing 2-0 at West Ham.
But it also gives fans and board members the success to cling to that buys Klopp more time. Winning a trophy is considered pretty difficult in your first couple of years at a club, unless you’re Jose Mourinho, but if you do happen to snag one, a lot more of the sorts of thing Klopp’s Liverpool are struggling with are forgiven much more readily. And that’s why it’s strange that more isn’t made of this competition, just because its importance to the big four or five, whoever they might be now, is minimal.
Stoke's approach constitutes the other side of this particular coin - a team from the middle rungs of the Premier League (albeit only a point and two places below Liverpool) for whom a title challenge is out of reach, targeting the one-offs of ‘cup competitions’ as their chance to mix it among the medals. Indeed, the league cup is Stoke’s only major trophy, won in 1972, and it would be considered an unbelievably successful season under Mark Hughes for them to maintain their position in the league and actually win a trophy again.
On reflection then, it seems that the one main difference between the FA and league cups is that you’ll never hear anyone speak of the ‘magic’ of the latter, but that certainly won’t matter to the winner of this season’s competition. The lower league clubs will still love securing that most shiny of apples from the second or third round draws, while the top brass will continue to rest their regulars until the latter stages — nothing new to the FA Cup (magic or none) when considering Big Sam’s recent comments ahead of Sunderland’s third round tie with Arsenal: “If the Premier League decides to put a stupid fixture midweek when they don’t bloody need to then I haven’t got much choice (about making changes at Arsenal). That’s diabolical.”
Fielding weakened teams until it matters? Moaning about the distraction of a cup competition when there is the far more urgent matter of avoiding relegation/finishing fifth to qualify for a European cup competition that no one seemingly wants to be in? The chance to give Premier League managers a few extra months’ breathing space via a hallowed piece of silverware? Yes, it seems the league cup really is the new FA Cup. Now all we need is a song from the finalists.
*Beyond the obvious fact that the league cup doesn't include non-league, before you all write in. We are aware of that.