The EFL Cup was once exciting for fans of Football League clubs, especially those in our division who were guaranteed a game against a big side in the second round.
Back then, top-flight clubs put out full strength sides and yet were often humbled. Few in York will forget them turning over a Manchester United side boasting Eric Cantona, and other smaller clubs will have fond memories of trips to Wembley. Oxford United and Luton Town are amongst the clubs to have lifted the trophy in the past, with Luton’s 3-2 victory over Arsenal in 1988 one of the best finals in history.
Eventually, Premier League clubs began not only to field weakened sides but boasting resources far in excess of our clubs they won the tournament too. Now it seems it is constantly shared between the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea, fielding their second string sides and still constantly cleaning up. Only once since 2004 has one of the big five (Man Utd, Man Cty, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea) not been in the final, breaking a tradition that has previously seen Tranmere, Wigan and Bolton all make it to Wembley.
Whilst there is a rich history in the competition, it is still the only English domestic trophy Martin O’Neill lifted as a manager, it is rapidly becoming one that no teams take seriously, not even those in our two divisions. The trophy has only left Manchester once in the last seven years and although the odd club (namely Burton) put a bit of a run together, it is largely treated with disdain by teams of all sizes.
Aside from Burton, few small clubs attach any importance to the tournament these days. In the second round of this year’s competition, In this year’s competition, Lincoln City hosted Everton and dropped eventual leading scorer Tyler Walker, as well as bringing in the previously untried Aaron Lewis. The rewards for doing well in the league, and even the EFL Trophy, are such that the Cup takes a backseat, especially with fixture schedules so busy in August and September.
BE SURE TO TEST YOUR LEAGUE CUP KNOWLEDGE WITH OUR QUIZ
Financially, it has become considerably more lucrative for EFL clubs to face Manchester City Under 21s in the EFL Trophy and win, than the senior side in the Cup and get beat, even with the gate receipts. As for Championship sides, they’re barely putting out a full squad in the FA Cup third round these days, meaning cup competitions take a backseat. Indeed, Doncaster and Sheffield Wednesday would have been a big game in the past, but in the EFL Cup, you’d likely see weakened sides from both clubs.
That leaves the 59-year-old tournament with a dilemma. Games do still draw half-decent attendances but the prospect of a Wembley final, something all cup competitions should offer smaller clubs, is diminished despite not having the lure of full-strength Premier League sides. The last time a team from outside the perceived ‘big guns’ won the trophy was in 2013 Swansea City took the trophy to Wales. Remarkably, League Two Bradford made the final that season, the first club to do so from the fourth tier since 1962. In getting to that stage, they beat Arsenal and Aston Villa, both fielding vastly under-strength sides. Sadly, as Premier League clubs acquire more talent, their second-string is often more than a match for the smaller clubs.
The future of the League Cup is perhaps even less secure in wake of the recent pandemic. Whilst it serves the Premier League giants well, giving them a chance to flex their muscles in terms of squad players, the same can be said of the EFL Trophy, offering young players senior football, but with a guarantee of more games. Sadly, outside of a select few, the cup is viewed with apathy and even disdain.
That will only continue to be the case until the prize money improves, or it finally ends up consigned to the annals of history.