The League Cup returns tonight and no one really seems to care. There are just 16 teams left in the competition, five of which come from the bottom two divisions. There is guaranteed to be at least one side from League One, and another from League Two, left in the quarter-finals.
This should be cause for celebration, but interest has been limited. The League Cup has been effectively sidelined in recent years as our focus on the Premier League and the Champions League becomes all-encompassing. The same situation is replicated elsewhere, with many countries, France being just the latest example, deciding to do away with the competition altogether.
England is now the only one of the ‘big five’ leagues – Germany, Italy, France and Spain make up the rest – to still have a League Cup. The idea of scrapping it is often floated as a potential solution to fixture congestion and changing priorities, but it would be a mistake to do so. It deserves more respect and still has much to offer.
While the League Cup is considered a trifling concern by the biggest clubs, and others are increasingly following suit, it's delivered some memorable moments and unexpected successes in its relatively short history. There should always be a place for it in the football calendar. That it stubbornly refuses to go away is for the best.
Seen as more of an inconvenience, and a chance to rest key players, than a cause for excitement, it continues to surprise and create a varied list of finalists. Since 2000, 19 different teams have played in a League Cup final, and even with Manchester City’s recent dominance, there have still been 10 different winners. The more prestigious FA Cup has yielded seven in the same period.
There's a sense that so many supporters have internalised the logic of club accountants and decided that the League Cup is just a distraction from reaching the Premier League or staying there. The pursuit of success for its own sake has become secondary to financial reward. Perverse as it may be, in pure monetary terms, TV deals are worth far more than trophies.
As a result of this, priorities have become warped. Winning the League Cup won’t save a manager’s job but finishing a few places higher up the league probably will. Even for those clubs who can’t hope to crack the top six, Premier League points still take precedence.
Instead, the League Cup has become the chance to give the reserves a consequence-free run out and managers at all levels are now treating it the same way. The early rounds inevitably bring a lot of changes and some clubs who could feasibly win the competition always get caught out. Crystal Palace and Tottenham Hotspur, both beaten on penalties by Colchester United, were particularly guilty this time around.
In some ways, this failure to take the League Cup seriously has had the unintended consequence of opening it up to others, with surprise finalists like Bradford, Wigan, Cardiff, Southampton, Sunderland, Tranmere and Bolton in the last 20 years. Meanwhile, Birmingham, Middlesbrough and Swansea have each emerged triumphant.
Even without a fairytale ending, Bradford City’s run to the final in 2013 was especially stirring. A League Two team seemingly destined for an early exit, they kept defying the odds. Having already beaten Premier League Wigan on penalties away from home, Phil Parkinson’s side then saw off Arsenal in the same manner at a raucous Valley Parade.
More drama was to follow in the semi-finals as Bradford beat Aston Villa 4-3 on aggregate. Nakhi Wells and James Hanson were a constant menace up front while Matt Duke and Rory McArdle became unexpected heroes for their staunch performances.
Swansea might have won comfortably at Wembley but the experience of getting there was anything but. It perfectly demonstrated the unpredictability of knock-out football and what the League Cup is all about. On their day any team in the top four divisions is capable of winning a one-off match, regardless of the opposition, and we shouldn’t deprive them of the chance to prove it.
This is why the belief that the League Cup could be abandoned without any loss to English football is so wrong, and the suggestion should be refuted at every turn. It's produced some brilliant moments of drama and defiance, becoming a surprisingly egalitarian outcrop in a football landscape defined by elite interests and narrow ambitions.