Why the League Cup?

The Capital One Cup is surely a superfluous tournament, the dubious brainchild of the late Alan Hardaker, and has no place in today’s football calendar, writes Brian Glanville.

A Cup too far, much too far I would suggest. But the Football League Cup, for what it is worth, has assumed yet another identity. Now it calls itself obscurely and clumsily The Capital One Cup. Please don’t ask me what that means, but I presume it has something to do with a commercial radio station.

This surely superfluous tournament is of course in fact the Football League Cup, the dubious brainchild of the late Alan Hardaker, for many years secretary and all powerful figurehead of the League itself, bitter opponent of the Football Association whose FA Cup, most historic and long lived of all English competitions, was his ill-concealed target. Needing sponsorship, the League Cup over the years has had so many commercial sponsors that it is hard to remember them all. It has at various times been the Milk Cup, the Coca-Cola Cup, the Worthington Cup and, more recently, the Carling Cup.

How significant it was that, last season, when Roy Hodgson the present England manager, was in charge of West Bromwich, he remarked. “As a manager, I’ve played four and lost four in the Carlsberg Cup or whatever it is called.”

Hardaker’s feud with the FA took on symptoms of insularity if not of xenophobia. He once remarked to me that he didn’t like going to the continent: “Too many wogs and dagoes.” Almost incredibly, he did everything he could to obstruct the European Cup. In 1955, when it began, he brought pressure on the hapless Joe Mears, then not only Chairman of Chelsea but also President of the Football League, to refuse to enter the new tournament for which Chelsea, as League champions, for the first time in their history, were qualified. They would have to wait for decades before the chance to participate occurred again.

The following season, Hardaker attempted to bully Manchester United, new champions, out of taking part but Matt Busby, Europhile Manager of United, defied him. In 1958, however, Hardaker would take a petty revenge. After the horrific Munich airport crash in February that year which decimated the United team, the club was generously offered by UEFA a place in the subsequent European Cup, though they were no longer champions. Hardaker bitterly opposed this, the FA initially stood their ground, but Hardaker then insisted on a joint League and FA committee, which feebly gave him his malign way.

His potentially subversive Football League Cup made a shaky and peripheral start. Founded in 1961, for six years it was something of a secondary affair, played in midweek on a two legged home and away basis, decided on aggregate of goals. But Hardaker wasn’t to be beaten. Rather like a rich father who marries off an ugly daughter with a huge dowry, he managed to transport the two-leg unattractive final to the so-called Temple of Football, Wembley Stadium. Suddenly and however spuriously, the ailing tournament had actually a glamorous ending. Since 1923, when the new-built stadium opened for major football — England v Scotland, the FA Cup final — it had proved an irresistible magnet for fans. And so it did again.

Indeed to give it its due, it would bank on three considerable finals. I still remember the dramatic first of them when Queens Park Rangers, then a Third Division club, defeated powerful West Bromwich Albion thanks in large measure to the brilliance in attack of Rodney Marsh. I even came back in the team coach — the only journalist — to west London with the exuberant team.

The following year, Leeds United beat Arsenal 1-0 in a fiercely contested final. Then in 1969 there was a sensational result when another 3rd Division club in Swindon Town beat mighty Arsenal 3-1 under heavy rain, with the Swindon left winger Don Rogers in irresistible form.

Over the ensuing years, however, the pattern has somewhat cynically changed. Yes, by the time it comes to Wembley and the final, the leading clubs field a full side and hope to win. Not least because the wily Hardaker added another sprat to catch the mackerel, as they say, securing an automatic place for the Cup’s winners in the Inter-cities, later the UEFA Cup, even though this meant frustrating the team which by virtue of its League position would otherwise have been qualified to take part.

Almost all the major clubs would, in the earlier rounds of the competition, put weakened teams full of reserves, thus diminishing the tournament beyond recognition. It certainly happened all over again when the senior clubs entered the Cup, and with a mere couple of exceptions, at Sunderland (22,000) and Everton (24,000), so many of the attendances were minuscule. 6,129 at Queens Park Rangers, 9,147 at Stoke, 8,053 at West Ham, 7,262 at Reading, 7,545 at Nottingham Forest.

There is already far too much football. Michel Platini’s ill-conceived Europa Cup drags on interminably with its huge distances to minor clubs, all the way from the depths of July. Surely the time has come for the major teams to withdraw from the League Cup, whatever its name. The diktat from the Football League itself that all their clubs should field full teams will surely not revive it.

Such a move seems, indeed, born out of sheer desperation and is rendered all the more futile in that the clubs of the Premier League are under no such obligation. There are those who feel that even the FA Cup has lost some of its allure, with a tournament such as the European Champions League now open to so many clubs from major countries. But the FA Cup surely retains a still unfaded allure. The League Cup has never had it.