Saturday, 12 January 2013

League Cup seeks to profit from Capital gains

Since their brief stint dining at English football's top table at the turn of the century, Bradford City have hardly been at the forefront of the average football fans' mind. A series of relegations and some much publicised financial troubles were the sum total of what most football fans knew of the goings on at Valley Parade. That has all changed. After the incredible 3-1 victory over Aston Villa in the Capital One Cup semi final first leg, the Bantams are just 90 minutes from a historic Wembley final. Avoiding a two goal defeat away from home against their supposedly more illustrious opponents in two weeks is all that stands in their way. Given how poor Paul Lambert's team have performed this season, it may not prove to be the most difficult task.

The first leg of the second semi saw Swansea City beat Rafa Benitez' Chelsea 2-0 in their own backyard. Since almost falling out of the football league completely ten years ago, the Swans' meteoric rise and progress has been astonishing. Currently sitting comfortable in the top half of the Premier League table, Swansea had already won at Anfield and the Emirates this season before this week's victory at the home of the current European champions. Like Bradford, avoiding a two goal defeat when they welcome the disharmonious Blues to Wales could mean a final between two sides who last faced each other in League One just five years ago. It may not be the 'glamour' tie but I will take the liberty of speaking for most “neutrals” when I say it will be one we would all rather see. The 'people's' final if you will.

Over the years, the Football League Cup has become English football's abandoned child. The black sheep. The unwanted guest at dinner that nobody invited. With it's bad breath and inappropriate comments about your wife, many of us are left to wonder why it's name is still always on the invitation list. What was once a respected and highly sought after piece of silverwear on these shores is now nothing more than an inconvenience. Arsene Wenger's candid, open admission that he regards the competition as low down as fifth on his list of priorities each season may have drawn criticism from fans and sections of the media alike but it's hardly a dramatic revelation. For years, the Frenchman has used the competition to blood younger and fringe members of his squad choosing to rest senior players for Premier League and Champions League matches. He's not alone, either. It's one of football's most open of secrets that the Arsenal manager is not the only person to feel this way about the competition. You'd be hard pressed to find a top club who will play a full strength side in the League Cup – at least not until the latter rounds. Weakened teams are often sent out as first teamers put their feet up at home and are not to be troubled by such trivialities. Certainly not with League titles and Champions League places to chase. The reticence is not even exclusive to the upper echelon as teams anticipating a relegation battle or even lower division sides aiming for promotion refuse to risk key players when they have, in their eyes, bigger fish to fry. This then leads to an increased feeling of apathy from fans. If the clubs don't give a toss about this grotesque, ugly, three handled (?) trophy, then why should I waste my time?

Part of what fosters this overall dismissive attitude is the feeling that the competition has lost any identity it may have once had. Cynicism is heightened by the fact it appears to be nothing more than the corporate whore of the football world. Of course, these days, sponsorship and football go hand in hand but the constant renaming of this particular competition has caused its credibility to diminish at a rapid rate. It is a little over 30 years since sponsorship from the now defunct Milk Marketing Board meant that for five years teams were competing for the Milk Cup. Following that, we had the Littlewoods Cup, the Rumbelows Cup, and the Coca Cola Cup. Then 1998 provided the watershed moment as perhaps fatally, the brewing company Worthington attached it's name to the tournament. At a time when English clubs were starting to reap the benefits of Murdoch's millions and taking significant strides in Europe, somewhat less importance was attached to domestic trophies. The Worthington Cup, quite inevitably, was soon amusingly but cruelly rechristened by fans as the 'Worthless' Cup – a blow from which it never really recovered. Despite becoming the Carling Cup and now this season, the Capital One Cup, there doesn't seem to be any real affection towards it. For all the name changes, there is one that sticks. Curiously, one that wasn't the result of sponsorship – although, Disney could have made a killing if they received any money every time a fan of a club exiting the competition uttered the immortal, yet disparaging words “it's only the Micky Mouse Cup”.

However, this season, interest in the much maligned competition has piqued somewhat. Due in part to the fact that understrength teams and dare I say, a lack of full commitment from some teams, has led to some truly entertaining matches and utterly bizarre results. The fact that a current fourth tier side could be in the final is remarkable enough but is quite frankly in keeping with what has been a weird and wacky tournament from the very start. Way back in August's first round, Derby County's match at home to Scunthorpe saw the Rams contrive to draw 5-5 despite leading the match 5-3 going into stoppage time after 90 minutes. Inevitably losing the subsequent penalty shootout. An otherwise ridiculous scenario that merely set the tone for later rounds. Round Two might well be best remembered for Nottingham Forest and Wigan competing in their own goal of the month competition but when Bradford scored two goals in the last 5 minutes to win away at Watford, I doubt many people would have even bat an eyelid. If only they knew...

The Premier League's European participants joined the competition in round three but as Arsenal and Chelsea were hitting Coventry and Wolves for 6, the big story came at the home of newly crowned champions Manchester City who twice surrendered leads to end up losing 4-2 to a poor and unfancied Aston Villa.

The Fourth round is when things really started to kick off. On any other night, Bradford City would have made all the headlines following their penalty heroics at Wigan but the events at the Madejeski put their shootout win so far in the shade it almost went unnoticed. Reading hosted Arsenal and thanks to some of the most comical defending and goalkeeping you will ever see, ludicrously found themselves 4-0 up as they approached half time. Theo Walcott's consolation before the break looked to be just that. However, as he scored his second to make it 4-4 in the 5th minute of stoppage time, many of us wondered what the hell we had just witnessed. As Marouane Chamakh lobbed Adam Federici to make it 7-5 to Arsenal at the end of extra time, nothing was making any sense anymore.

Not to be outdone, 24 hours later, Manchester United sent a young team to Chelsea and looked to be heading through as they led 3-2 deep into the dying embers of stoppage time. That was until Scott Wootton, who curiously hasn't been seen since, gave away a 94th minute penalty. Chelsea turned the screw in extra time but the eventual 5-4 scoreline told a story almost as mad as the events in Berkshire the previous evening. Swansea's impressive 3-1 win at Anfield and Norwich's stunning late comeback to score two in the last 5 minutes to beat Spurs 2-1 were both an afterthought on the night.

Bradford's win over Wigan happened to be their seventh successive penalty shootout victory. After beating Northampton by the same method in the FA Cup first round, they went on to make it nine in a row in the League Cup Quarters. A truly memorable night at Valley Parade saw them knock out a near enough full strength Arsenalteam in an upset that will be remembered for years to come. Having led for much of the game, the Bantams looked to be heartbroken as Thomas Vermaelen equalised with just a few short minutes left of normal time. But the Belgian turned from hero to villain as his decisive spot kick cannoned off the post to send one half of West Yorkshire into rapture. Things weren't so great for the other half as, despite leading 1-0 at half time, Leeds were dispatched 5-1 by a merciless Chelsea side to join Swansea, Villa and the abovementioned Bradford in the final four.

As if learning absolutely nothing from the tournament so far, many people expected Chelsea and Villa to put an end to all the nonsense and navigate their way into the final. However, after this week's first leg shocks, you'd have been a foolish man to take that as given. Instead, we find ourselves on the brink of a Swansea v Bradford final that nobody would have predicted when the balls first came out of the bag in the summer. Yet, despite their advantages going into their respective second legs, one still doesn't know what else to expect from this season's madcap competition. If either or both of Chelsea and Villa were to pull off a comeback and make it through to the final, it would simply be in keeping with the unpredictability this competition has thrown up thus far. However much people want to dismiss the League Cup as a lower priority, there can be no denying the drama it has provided this season – something that looks to continue right to the bitter end on February 24th. The “magic of the cup” is a line that is routinely trotted out every time something vaguely surprising happens in the FA Cup. This year, perhaps the magic has found it's way over to England's 'other' domestic cup competition.

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