IT’S the time of year when the debate about the League Cup rears its head once more — the perennial discussion when each new season sees a few more fans lost to the dark side, concluding that a place among the 23 clubs that have won the competition isn’t anything much to aspire to in the modern day.
It’s the last cup of note a Liverpool player lifted, Steven Gerrard eventually getting his clutches on the trophy after the drama of a penalty shoot-out versus Cardiff City in 2012.
Before that day at Wembley, you have to wind back to 2006 for a trophy tied up in Liverpool red — then it was the FA Cup heading back to Merseyside after Rafa Benitez’s side triumphed over West Ham on penalties following *that* Gerrard goal.
Great memories. But that’s just what they are in 2017. It’s now just two cups in 11 years for a club once said by Bill Shankly to “exist to win trophies”.
Times have changed. And so too have attitudes from many to the competition that has wore a string of names, from the League Cup to the Milk Cup. The Littlewoods Cup to the Rumbelows Cup. Coca Cola, Worthington, Carling, Capital One, EFL and, now, Carabao.
Is it a competition worth bothering with? Does it have any real value in the modern game?
How strong should the teams Liverpool field in the competition be?
And on it goes.
The League Cup then…
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) September 18, 2017
As ever, there are various views. Everyone has a different take. Yet for a fan of my vintage, that the debate even exists is depressing in itself.
Early memories of this competition include a gleefully defiant Graeme Souness pushing through players to celebrate a cracking goal in a replay of the final versus Everton in 1984: “Souness for Liverpool.”
Six years on, my own match-going days at Anfield began with a 5-1 routing of Crewe in the competition. It was “only” The Rumbelows Cup, “only” a game against Crewe. But it was the first time I watched my heroes in the flesh on the brilliant green turf of a floodlit Anfield. It was special for me and a night I’ll always remember. To this day, it offers up games that are easier to get tickets for. An opportunity for new fans to get the bug. No bad thing.
Later, it was this cup that kicked off the cup treble of 2001, the second time it was among a trophy threesome for the Reds after the achievements of 1984.
Everywhere you look since its inception in 1960, this cup in its various forms and weird and wonderful names has been intertwined with Liverpool FC. The Reds are the club that has carried it home the most — a record eight times. Ian Rush is the joint top goalscorer in the competition (tied with Geoff Hurst on 49) and also the player who has won it the most — lifting the cup five times. The Reds also hold the joint record for the biggest win in the competition: 10-0 versus Fulham.
From a Liverpool perspective, the already muddied waters on this subject were further dirtied when Kenny Dalglish was sacked in 2012. A league performance that saw Liverpool finish in eighth, 37 points off the league’s top two, was given as the decisive factor for pulling the plug on The King’s second coming.
Many critics of FSG’s decision pointed out Dalglish had ended a six-year trophy drought and was close to a League Cup-FA Cup double. Then managing director Ian Ayre clarified the club’s stance on a competition that this year dangles carrots of just £100,000 to the winner and the guarantee of a Europa League spot should a winning team not qualify through league position.
“People don’t want to hear that football is a business,” Ayre said. “They want to see us put lots and lots of money into the team and win lots of trophies and games, but you have got to have both.
“You’ve got to have continued progress in the league. If you don’t do well in that and don’t get into the Champions League, you are writing cheques from your own pocket – and that is not sustainable going forward.
“Fans want trophies, but you have got to have both. The Carling and FA Cups don’t generate the revenue and the success that is needed to keep investing, and to be successful, you have to keep investing.”
That’s a message that has been repeated elsewhere. Arsene Wenger has repeatedly questioned the value of the League Cup, in 2010 telling the media: “’If you win the League Cup, can you honestly say you have won a trophy?
“We have got out of the group stages in the Champions League for 10 seasons in a row. That is three times more difficult than winning the League Cup five times. And finishing third in the league is more difficult than winning the League Cup.”
In 2012, he was at it again. “For me, there are five ‘trophies’,” he said. “The first is to win the Premier League the second is to win the Champions League, the third is to qualify for the Champions League, the fourth is to win the FA Cup and the fifth is to win the League Cup.
“I say that because if you want to attract the best players, they do not ask ‘did you win the League Cup?’, they ask you ‘do you play in the Champions League?’.”
The two aren’t mutually exclusive, of course. But many argue the former can be detrimental to the latter, stretching a squad at a crucial stage of the season across a two-legged semi-final and a final a month later — games that even the most committed of rotating managers will tend to play their best players in.
But on we go with the arguments and the counter arguments. In 2000-01, Liverpool played 63 games. And the Reds played 34 matches between January 1 and May 19, losing only four.
Jamie Carragher has repeatedly referenced the win versus Birmingham in the League Cup final as setting Liverpool on the road to a season that ended with three cups and third place in the Premier League.
It ranks as one of the most exciting seasons I’ve witnessed first hand, and when Liverpool lifted that first trophy of the season no-one was complaining. The ear-splitting sound of the support under the Millennium Stadium roof in 2003 when Liverpool beat Manchester United in the same competition told a similar story.
There is no doubt that the League Cup continues to be devalued, despite its history. This season alone a farcical draw 6,000 miles away to suit sponsors, Thai energy drink company Carabao, culminated in a comical official graphic showed Charlton drawn both home and away in the same round.
Yet for all the talk of it being a poor relation as a cup, as a coffers-booster, and as a source of excitement, it’s a piece of silverware that routinely ends up in the hands of the big boys.
Behind Liverpool with eight wins are Manchester United, Chelsea and Aston Villa with five. In the last decade, the teams triumphing in finals read Tottenham, Manchester United (three times), Birmingham, Liverpool, Swansea, Manchester City (twice) and Chelsea. Every one of those finals has drawn a crowd of well over 80,000.
The conclusion is inconclusive. For a young fan who has never watched his club lift a trophy, the first time will always be a special time. The League Cup counts. For the boardroom bean counter, it’s bottom of the list of priorities. For players and manager? It seems some rate it more than others.
What is interesting though is that this debate isn’t new. It’s not just last year or the last decade that this discussion has raged on. No, we can go all the way back to 1960, when the competition first knocked up as two fingers to The FA (all for that) was born.
Then, in The Times, a footballer writer griped: “Where a drastic reduction is required in an attempt to raise quality, no doubt quantity and a further spread of mediocrity will be the dose.
“Where men like Count Bernabeu with his wider horizons, think in terms of a European-league for the future in which a lead could surely now be given jointly by our leaders, the Football League propose next season to implement their useless Football League Cup to be played in midweek. It gets the players, the clubs and the public nowhere.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same.