Friday, 2 November 2012

Why I've fallen in love with the modern League Cup

In recent years I have allowed myself to believe that the League Cup had become like the BAFTAs. A nomination for the glamorous finale meant a jolly good day out and if ultimately successful, a prize that wouldn't look bad in the cabinet. However, it isn't recognised as the highest form of achievement by those who truly matter and ultimately, isn't as good as the Oscars.

Thankfully, the fixtures that have taken us through to the quarter-final stage of this year's tournament have acted as an epiphany to help me break away from what modern football wants me to believe. The League Cup may not be able to compete with the more glamorous trophies on offer, but it has a great deal to offer to those involved.

Before I present my theory, it is important to remember that there have been times when the League Cup has been considered hugely significant. It wasn't all reserve teams, sacrificed ties and half-empty stadiums. Ask fans of Oxford United, Luton Town, Middlesbrough, Leicester City, Stoke City and even recently, Birmingham City. League Cup victories matter and form an important part of the history of many victorious football clubs. Those who mock victory have either known too much success or have never been fortunate enough to know how good it feels.

I'll admit, this theory isn't going to change your life and it might take a little empathy to understand. Until your team experiences one of the key factors, the concept may remain alien to you. However, I am not going to worry about saying it in fear of what the big boys who get to play in Europe may think. I really enjoy the League Cup.

One reason why the time feels right to confess my fondness of the competition is the glut of goals that we were treated to this week. On Tuesday afternoon I was complaining about Sky Sports' choice of live fixture. Reading were hosting Arsenal's second string while elsewhere, Swindon Town were taking on struggling Aston Villa. My birth certificate and the badge upon my chest dictate that I don't like Swindon, but even I could see why it was the more attractive fixture for the neutral viewer. We can see Reading play Arsenal twice this season anyway. Who wants to watch it again?

As it turned out, all of us did. Football matches are never the same and if the Capitol One marketing team could have asked for anything from this year's competition, it would have been that it embraced the downright barmy to entertain us all. The Tuesday night fixture forced those of us who are interested in shape, formations and controlled football to rip up our data sheets and just enjoy the game for what it was; glorious mayhem in front of a captivated audience. The game in Wiltshire wasn't too bad either and when combined with Wednesday's extra-time fun at Stamford Bridge, the cup has enjoyed a productive week.

So there's the first thing to remember. When there are fewer perceived consequences of defeat, utterly crazy and brilliant things can happen. A game of football can be exciting whether it is in the park on a Sunday or at the Etihad in May. A football match doesn't need a direct consequence to be enthralling and if we are determined to not enjoy 90 (or 120) minutes of the game that we love because of our own perceptions of the competition it is in, we've gone wrong somewhere along the line.

If any type of club understands the concept of enjoying the League Cup for what it is, it is often the clubs in League Two. Below what worldwide fans see on the television every weekend, there is a world of football. It doesn't stop at the bottom of the Football League either. There are people right down the football pyramid going to a ground on a Saturday afternoon to watch a game. The non-league clubs obviously don't fit directly into the theory until the FA Cup comes around, but for these clubs and fans, the League Cup can still be very special.

I wouldn't change a thing about my time supporting Oxford United, despite our extended foray into the Conference, for this very reason. When you have done a Friday night in Barrow or stood on the unprotected terrace at Grays Athletic in the cold January rain, you gain a great sense of perspective. After promotion to the Football League, I was excited about visiting Northampton Town, let alone clubs at the top of our game.

This is where the second point comes in. The League Cup isn't all about the Premier League and if anybody who supports a top division club complains that the competition is an inconvenience, excuse the thousands of fans of clubs below you who will happily not give a damn. One of my favourite Oxford memories in recent years was visiting Upton Park in this competition. We lost in the last minute, but to pack an away end of a big stadium with yellow shirts to watch our players take on their top-level counterparts was special.

When Bradford host Arsenal in the quarter-finals of this year's tournament, it will be a great game for their club. They may not have been away from the top flight for all too long, but when you are at the bottom, it feels like a million miles away. There are some passionate supporters down there who don't receive the same level of exposure as their bigger counterparts. If we are going to begrudge the smaller boys a potentially club-saving pay-day because it's a trophy that feels inconvenient, it may be time to visit a lower league game and rediscover that sense of perspective.

That part of the theory was a little intense, right? The little man's attacks on the big establishment will become a feature on these pages where I'm involved, but this was supposedly going to help you to enjoy football again. So, as Helen Lovejoy once said in The Simpsons, “won't somebody please think of the children?!”

Whichever club you support, there few things more enjoyable than seeing a young player break into the first team. Sadly, the cut-throat nature of the Premier League has made it even harder for young players to break through. There's obviously the impact of players coming from abroad to contend with, but when a manager can lose his job for four bad results, you can understand why the trusted pros often get the nod over the raw youngsters. With managers worrying about overworking their first eleven, the League Cup has become a platform for the young players to impress.

Tuesday night provided the perfect example of this. Unless you are an avid watcher of U21 football, the name Thomas Eisfeld may have been new to you. Eisfeld is 19, signed for Arsenal from Borussia Dortmund in January and doesn't have a huge profile. After replacing Emmanuel Frimpong - a player with a self-driven profile that vastly outweighs his ability – the German put on a 60 minute exhibition of his talents. His movement was intelligent, his touch exquisite and his passing accurate. His team were in a hole and when they needed a boost, it was the teenager who was at the heart of it. Suddenly Andrei Arshavin came to life, Arsenal were passing through Reading's defensive lines and the entire match changed.

If Thomas Eisfeld makes a Premier League d├ębut this season, the League Cup will have been worthwhile. Managers never know how a player is going to react to a first-team match environment until they have been there, but if they embrace the opportunity, it can act as a fast-track through to the Premier League. Just ask Liverpool. Suso and Andre Wisdom were so impressive in the third round victory at West Brom that they have been starting in the Premier League ever since.

By the same token, Liverpool's defeat to Swansea last night may have been the last chance for Joe Cole to turn his Anfield career around. It was an opportunity that he didn't take. If the League Cup is ensuring that the brightest young talent is allowed to play in prominent club competitions ahead of those who are on the slide at the end of a career, it is a competition that is worth embracing.

To get something from the League Cup experience, you have to buy into it. For too long the competition has been viewed as an inconvenient road to nowhere by the modern football fan. But is it really? This season it has entertained, given the lower league sides their day in the sun and provided the opportunity for youngsters to show that their time is now. If we love football, we should love that.

It may not have the non-league narrative of the FA Cup, the glamorous European nights of the Champions League or the multi-million pound making three points of the Premier League, but it is far from being obsolete. If anything, it is a tournament that is discovering a new purpose in the modern game and for that, I think it's terrific.

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