League Cup: back to the future
In the mid-Fifties, two revolutionaries were creating their magna opera. Erik Erikson, the American developmental psychologist, was disseminating his “Theory of Personality”. Alan Hardaker, the secretary of the Football League, was disseminating his “Pattern for Football”. As a consequence of great thinking and unyielding fortitude, Erikson conferred upon the world the term “identity crisis” and Hardaker conferred upon the world the “Football League Cup”.
The two men were made for each other. So were their inventions.
The League Cup has suffered from an annual identity crisis since the first two matches – West Ham United v Charlton Athletic; Bristol City v Fulham – kicked off on September 26, 1960. Eight different names, three different trophies, wanton indifference among some clubs going back 52 years . . . little wonder that we disparage this monstrosity of a competition.
Yes, we have seen the competition go back to the future, with a final in 2013 between Bradford City and Swansea City. This is true fairytale stuff . . . but only in keeping with the nature of how it all began in 1960-61. Teams have the fourth tier of English football have reached the final before.
We like to think of this identity crisis as something new; a reflection of football’s move away from the pursuit of glory and splendour towards the pursuit of money and status. Not so. The League Cup aroused criticism even in the days before it trespassed on the fixture lists like a streaker at a funeral.
When critics called the competition "Hardaker's Folly", they were not being sarcastic. They were being cynical. The West Bromwich Albion chairman in 1959 called it a “retrograde” step, and 16 clubs opposed the creation of this new competition, on the grounds that matches would lose money. Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Sheffield Wednesday, Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers all refused initially to take part. Liverpool ignored the competition from 1962 to 1968.
As the 2012-13 competition sprung into life last September, the criticisms sounded just the same as they did in the late-Fifties. The only difference now is that every club plays but not always at full strength. It has become a reserve-team competition for some. During Liverpool’s match against Albion at The Hawthorns in the early rounds, they fielded a player – Jerome Sinclair – who, the previous week, was still aged only 15. Manchester United, at home to Newcastle United on the same night as Liverpool were in West Bromwich, gave debuts to Marnick Vermijl, Scott Wootton, Michael Keane, Robbie Brady, and Ryan Tunnicliffe.
And yet, consider the scenes of joy when Liverpool won the trophy in 2012, after defeating Cardiff City in a penalty shoot-out. If a competition is so misconceived, so irrelevant, how is it able to stimulate such passion? It stimulates passion because of the Wembley final and because of the European place that goes to the winners. And that is the point, because only when the League Cup final moved to Wembley in 1967, and the winners gained a place in the European Fairs Cup, did the competition acquire legitimacy. (“One day, the League Cup final will be played on Wembley turf,” Sir Joe Richards, the Football League president, said in 1960. “But it won’t be in my lifetime.” He was, of course, wrong. He lived to see it.)
During research for a book I was writing a few years ago, I spoke to Charlie Aitken, the coil-haired former Aston Villa and New York Cosmos defender, who played in the 1963 League Cup final against Birmingham City. "The League Cup final wasn't that big a deal at the time," he told me. "I went to Villa Park for the second leg on the bus with the supporters. It was a final, and of course we wanted to win the League Cup, but it was nowhere near the status of the FA Cup."
But even after 1967, the perception existed that many clubs regarded the seven-match process to reach the final as too much effort. Liverpool did not win it for the first time until 1981, Manchester United not until 1992. The League Cup records of Liverpool and United in the Sixties and Seventies make miserable yet interesting reading. In the Seventies, Liverpool won the European Cup twice and Uefa Cup twice, but the League Cup not at all. United did not reach a final until 1983.
Consider this run of Liverpool results from the beginning of 1978-79: Queens Park Rangers (home), won 2-1; Ipswich Town (away), won 3-0; Manchester City (away), won 4-1; Sheffield United (away), lost 0-1; Tottenham Hotspur (home), won 7-0; Birmingham City (away), won 3-0. The odd one out? You guessed it. Sheffield United, League Cup, August 28, 1978. I remember the night. In the parlance of Len Shackleton, Liverpool were lucky to score nil.
Identity crisis was inherent in the League Cup because the competition lacked a raison d'etre. What was the point of it? Once clubs rejected Hardaker’s “Pattern for Football” (ignoring the bits they disliked but wanting to adopt the bits they liked), there was no need for the League Cup. Many observers deemed it a poor-man’s FA Cup, and that viewpoint remains. For the first six seasons, the League Cup final was played over two legs, and the first final, between Aston Villa and Rotherham, was played in 1961-62 – the season after the first-round matches began.
And yet, identity crisis or otherwise, some of the stories from 1967 to 1980 remain part of the game’s folklore. Queens Park Rangers won the competition as a Third Division club in 1967. Swindon Town won it as a Third Division club in 1969. Then there was the 1975 final, between Aston Villa and Norwich City – two clubs from Division Two. The matches were stimulating, and remain such an important part of the game’s rich heritage, but did nothing to dispel the perception that the larger clubs did not take the League Cup seriously.
The League Cup became the Milk Cup in 1982, with a new trophy. Gone, it seemed, was the unique three-handled Sir Joe Richards Trophy. The identity crisis deepened, and the ghastly new trophy, which looked as if the designer had been on mushrooms, told its own story. Then came the Littlewoods Cup, with a new trophy, in 1987, the Rumbelows Cup in 1990, the Coca-Cola Cup in 1992, the Worthington Cup in 1998, the Carling Cup in 2003, and the Capital One Cup from the beginning of this season. Fortunately, the end of the Rumbelows sponsorship in 1992 brought the return of the Sir Joe Richards Trophy, which is more pleasing aesthetically than the competition for which it exists. But this is not about aesthetics. This is about reason and purpose.
The problem for the League Cup is that while it shows signs of life, it is really dying. It is only a matter of time before Uefa, the game’s European governing body, denies the League Cup winners a place in Europe. Once that happens, the mass exodus of Premier League clubs will happen in a single day; like astute investors leaving a dodgy company en masse. Although attendances are generally quite good, and the small profits from matches more than welcome, the competition does not provide the type of windfalls that are now required at the highest level. The Capital One Cup winners in 2013 will secure a prize of just £100,000 – enough to cover one week’s wage for a good Premier League player.
And yet there is a charm about the League Cup, enhanced by its history and glory. Ask the Queens Park Rangers supporters who will occasionally devour the DVD of the 1967 final. Ask the Swindon Town supporters who will arrange 1969 League Cup final nights. Ask the Stoke City supporters who regard the 1972 League Cup final as the highlight of the club’s history. Ask Oxford United about the 1986 League Cup final. Ask Luton Town supporters about the 1988 League Cup final.
But football in its modern form exemplifies the doctrines of Social Darwinism: move forward or die. Just as Uefa felt in 1999 that there was no longer a need for the European Cup Winners’ Cup, so it will be that one day the League Cup will cease to have relevance. Sentiment has no value.
We have been heading this way for a long time, perhaps even since the very day, in September 1960, when West Ham United played Charlton Athletic at Upton Park in front of 12,000 spectators. Among the West Ham players was a young Bobby Moore, who, in the 1972 League Cup semi-final, went in goal to face Stoke City – and saved a penalty by Mike Bernard.
Yes, the past really is another country. So, it seems, is the League Cup.