As we’d expect from an event that was once used as a marketing vehicle for milk, most of us see the League Cup as being less prestigious than the FA Cup. Nonetheless, the former still attracts a lot of attention. Both are treated as major trophies and the final of both competitions is a big event in each season’s calendar.
This isn’t normal. Across Europe, the only non-British country that has two domestic cup competitions is France. And, the way it is now, the League Cup generates quite a few significant problems.
With twice the number of trophies, we get twice the fun. That’s a natural assumption to make, and for some fans this is true. For a lot of fans, however – perhaps the majority – this isn’t the case.
Why do footballers and fans care about winning trophies? Prize money is a motive for less wealthy clubs, but is typically seen as being small change for Premier League teams. So, I can think of three reasons that motivate pretty much anyone to strive for or follow a cup run. These are; desire for exceptional success, a wish to be remembered, and a yearning for bragging rights.
By having the FA Cup and League Cup run side-by-side, we’ve diluted these motivators for each competition. Triumph in the FA Cup clearly feels like a less exceptional kind of success when it comprises only one-half of that season’s domestic cup tournaments. Moreover, running both competitions means that the list of English cup winners has effectively doubled in size – making individual champions far harder to remember.
Having both cups dilutes motivation for each of them
It’s no secret that people generally care less about the FA Cup now than they did 10 or 20 years ago – I believe that a significant reason for this is the existence of the League Cup. As I’ve said; for some fans, the League Cup nonetheless generates net benefits. But many fans disagree, and I suspect we may be in the majority.
These aren’t the only problems that the League Cup creates. It has become customary to discuss how English players are always tired at the end of the season, and how they suffer accordingly when playing in the World Cup or European Championships.
A simple way to partially address this problem would be to just get rid of the League Cup. Of course, this would reduce the number of games that each team contests (a Premier League team that reaches the League Cup final plays six or seven games in the process).
Perhaps more importantly, though, this would significantly reduce mental fatigue. Taking part in an extra competition means that each player has to focus on additional objective. Players that reach the latter stages of a competition have to endure the hype and nerves that accompany this. Players that get knocked out of a tournament early have to withstand reproach from their fans and management and a sense of failure.
These all carry mental costs. Often, in the case of England, it seems that they are not merely physically fatigued but also psychologically shattered. Take away a major source of mental strain – a cup competition – and this could significantly improve. The League Cup has a less prestigious history than the FA Cup so, if we had to get rid of one of them, it’d be natural to scrap the former.
But I don’t think the answer to these problems is to get rid of the League Cup completely. Whilst that would address the issues explored above, we can instead use the League Cup to help fix a different set of problems that we face in English football. This the problem of young players; their prospects and their playing-time.
This would be a way to give young players big games
Another regularly-discussed emergency that faces the England national team is that English clubs only rarely oversee the progression of English players into their first-teams. At the moment, young English players typically find it very hard to get game-time if they’re registered with a Premier League team (notable exceptions are Liverpool and Tottenham).
Increasingly, such players are loaned out to lower-league clubs. But experience in the Championship or League One is fundamentally different to that of the Premier League, where the opposition is significantly better and the media spotlight is much more intense. A standard Premier League game brings much more pressure onto a young player’s shoulders than most games in the lower leagues, and it’s a failure to deal with pressure that normally sees English players’ careers stall.
A way to give young players some big-game experience against high-quality opposition, then, would be to transform the League Cup into a competition in which only players under the age of 23 can play.
This way, England’s established players – typically older than this, and thus ineligible – would have their mental burden eased. Young players would get important experience. The FA Cup would become obviously and fundamentally different from the League Cup – it would mean very different things to win each one, and people would care a lot more about the FA Cup as a result.
Of course, the quality of the football on display in the League Cup would almost certainly fall as a result, and some fans would no longer care about the tournament. These are disadvantages. But this change would bring advantages to English football as a whole. Ultimately, this is all about replacing quantity with quality – and if we care about the FA Cup and the national team, then it’s a move we should make.