League Cup format that nurtures youngsters can make it more relevant

  • Sumil Sudhakaran, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Feb 28, 2016 15:06 IST
Manchester City face Liverpool in the League Cup final on Sunday. With the Premier League clubs dominating the tournament, it is better for England’s sake to revisit the format of the Cup. (AFP Photo)

The League Cup is an oddity, a tournament no club wants to win, until they are in the final. It is a competition that distinguishes English football from that of Spain, Italy, Germany, or for that matter, much of the world: a third domestic competition, a second Cup event.

With Manchester City facing Liverpool at Wembley on Sunday night for the not-so-coveted, though historic, Football League Cup, its original name, now is an opportune time to question the relevance of it all, at least in the current format.

First, let’s get this out of the way: not many football competitions can rival the history the League Cup has. It isn’t any tournament, it is one of the oldest pillars of world football, the pride of Football League, the latter the original elite English competition until the Premier League gatecrashed the party in its stylish, expensive, in-your-face sports car.

With nostalgia out of the way, let’s play the cold credit manager. Would Manuel Pellegrini or Jurgen Klopp have envisaged winning the competition when disembarking from the flight that took these wise men to England? Though it also points to the abysmally few English managers in the top tier of the country, the League Cup is not the priority for most Premier League clubs. It is, however, for the poorer Football League clubs, but do they really have a fair shot at the title? If they don’t, isn’t the pillar that upholds the edifice of English football askew?

To believe that a fair and just playing field could be set for the lower tier clubs to compete against Premier League giants is hope hopen (to hope unrealistically), but at least it could be far less unfair. And crucially more sensible.

Arsene Wenger is one of the few managers who has used the League Cup to nurture youngsters, even when at the business end of it. He resisted the temptation to field a full strength squad in the final against José Mourinho’s Chelsea in 2007, opting out the likes of Thierry Henry and William Gallas.

“I have full confidence in these players and I like to do what I say. We battled very hard to be in this final and it would be a reward for this team, which has risen to challenge,” Wenger was quoted as saying before the final.

Arsenal went on to lose and the manager had to face the heat for the selection. But then wasn’t he right? Winning the League Cup would not have made Arsenal any greater, but by instilling his faith in the likes of Theo Walcott, Wenger has done the club, and the Englishman, much good.

Why not legitimise it then? Why not bring in a directive to force the Premier League clubs to field a younger side, say an under-23?

FA chairman Greg Dyke too had raised concerns over the lack of English players in the top tier. According to an FA review, only 32% of 2012-13 League season starters qualified to play for England. It was 69% 20 years before. “The gap between the academy and the first team has widened significantly,” Dyke was quoted as saying by the BBC.

Dyke has made it public he intends to bring in rules to reduce the over reliance of Premier League clubs on overseas players. It’s safe to say he will face considerable opposition to that plan. Revisiting the format of the League Cup, however, may be more acceptable to the big clubs; it’s a middle ground that is more likely to see the light of the day.

A juniors-only rule may well solve two separate problems.

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