Is the League Cup worth keeping? In this piece from last season following Liverpool's 5-5 draw with Arsenal on October 30, James Gray argued it is not...
The scoreline Liverpool 5-5 Arsenal should have been enough to warn us all that the Carabao Cup is no longer a real competition, if indeed it ever was. Only Leicester's recent demolition of Southampton made it seem real. Otherwise, I'd have dismissed it as a typo and gone on the hunt for what actually happened last night.
Even without the lack of defending that infected both sides at Anfield, it would be difficult to explain the presence of a second domestic cup competition in English football to an outsider, especially given its current state.
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"So it's like the Premier League, but a knockout version." "No, that's the FA Cup."
"Oh. So how is this different?" "It's called the League Cup. Sometimes. Well not any more."
"And it's for everyone?" "No. Just the professional teams."
"So the best teams play?" "Well, sort of. A version of them."
"I like that Sadio Mane lad. Why isn't he playing tonight?" "Because it's not that important."
"And why is Mesut Ozil playing?" "Er... well... can we talk about something simple like Brexit instead?"
You can see the issue.
Even Mesut Ozil gets a game in the Carabao Cup
Image credit: Getty Images
In an era defined by personality, the sport's biggest players take no part in this competition. On Tuesday and Wednesday, a small army of professional footballers were given the night off while their younger or in some cases (Ozil) less popular counterparts got the chance to "shine".
In this week's last-16 fixtures, there were literally hundreds of changes to starting line-ups from previous fixture, in fact almost as many as the number of different names the competition has had. (By my estimations, it is 10 since 1980, not including the nicknames thrown around the terraces.)
Why? The teams already know how insignificant the tournament is, because they've been told by the repeated actions of the organisers.
The removal of extra time is an admission that this is not a real tournament. It is the latest in a series of dilutions that started almost as soon as the competition had got going, with ties and matches shortened and simplified year after year. There is a simple mantra behind each gradual move - 'let's just get it over with'. They might as well toss a coin at kick-off and all go home.
Liverpool's enjoyment of the win is unlikely to last very long
Image credit: Getty Images
No-one will remember this 5-5 draw in two years' time, never mind 10 or 15, just as no-one remembers Scarborough of the fourth division knocking out Chelsea and Coventry on the way to fourth round. They do not get lumped in with the giant-killers of Hereford United or Wrexham or Sutton, even though they did it when teams were still taking the competition seriously.
The utter insignificance of the occasion makes whatever glitz and glory present on the day entirely fleeting. It has no meaning beyond a cheap thrill for the night.
And don't fall for any manager claiming that they are picking the best team to win the game, or relishing the opportunity to blood some youngsters, or give their aging, overpaid striker some much-needed game-time. Whatever they say publicly, these top-six managers would all gladly see the back of the trophy which has rarely saved any of them from the sack. They know that the chairman's excitement on the night is little more than a sugar rush that will wear off by the morning.
Perhaps in the lower echelons of the top tier, this trophy carries more weight. With its backdoor into Europe and Wembley final, the likes of Marco Silva or Dean Smith may see it as manna from heaven, particularly if they get to line up against the third-stringers in the quarter-final.
Aston Villa may not even have to turn up at all, with their last-eight meeting with Liverpool set to clash with the Club World Cup, the only competition more pointless than this one. But if you need any further indictment of the sheer folly of the Carabao Cup (it's a bit like Red Bull, I'm told), it is that Jurgen Klopp, manager of the league leaders and most successful club in its history, is prepared to forfeit their participation.
Klopp said: "If they don't find a place for us, an appropriate place, not 3am on Christmas Day, then we don't play it.
If they don't find a proper date for us then we cannot play the next round and whoever is our opponent will go through - or Arsenal will play it. I cannot change that.
Surely not? Surely we cannot consign Divock Origi's late equaliser, Caoimhin Kelleher's penalty save and Curtis Jones' decisive spot-kick to the annals of voided history? Actually we can, and we should do away with the whole lot.
It is worth knowing the circumstances of the tournament's birth before we kill it off. It may shed some light on the futility of its life.
The Football League Cup was inaugurated in 1960 to fill the gap left in the fixture list by a re-organisation of the league. It was even described by the president of the Football League as an "interim" arrangement to make up for a shortfall in revenue created by fewer fixtures.
There was a time when the League Cup meant something, but few can remember it
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But it was also a power move, as the EFL tried to assert some dominance over the blazers at the FA and express their concern about falling revenues and revenue shares. Even then, it was condemned in the press as small-minded, parochial and a threat to English teams' hopes in Europe.
Now, the same concerns remain and the gradual dilution of the competition continues apace. First it was the removal of the third replay, then replays of two-legged matches, then the early-round byes for clubs in European competition until the latest change, with extra time only used on the final.
This is a competition that was essential a political and financial football, an instrument created by the authorities for their own means with no real thought as to the future. Little by little, it has become acceptable for everyone, even those outside the elite level, to field weakened teams.
Jurgen Klopp seems ambivalent towards the Carabao Cup
Image credit: Eurosport
But the fixtures must still be fulfilled and there is a limit on how many actual children you can realistically field. Even last night, Liverpool and Arsenal both had enough senior talent on the pitch to ensure it was still a game to intimidate most players unused to the intensity of first-team football. And while James Milner appears to have reversed the aging process, those extra miles in his legs will one day take their toll. And to what end? None.
If Liverpool forfeit their tie against Aston Villa, it must be the toll of a bell that awakens the Football League. A mere dilution of this competition, seen many times before, will not suffice. It makes a mockery of English football when clubs are forced into these corners, where games are mere shams and the only people happy at the end are the sponsors whose name flutters from the arms of the trophy in all the victory photos.
It is time to take the Carabao Cup down the river and do what is kindest. It serves no purpose, and has become a millstone round the necks of the clubs that make English football what it is. Scrap the League Cup. Give us all an extra night off.