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What Should We Do With The Capital One Cup?

Friday 30th August 2013
Bruce Halling gives his thoughts on the state of the Capital One Cup, and offers a number of possible solutions for a competition which struggles to draw attention.

The Capital One Cup Second Round took place this week, with a number of lower league teams hoping to 'do a Bradford' and pull off the first of what they hope would be a number of upsets against bigger sides en route to the latter stages of the competition. Ultimately, most sides who found themselves faced with Premier League competition would fall short, although several sides gave their more illustrious opponents a run for their money.

The sad thing about the competition now is that for the majority of football fans, it is nothing more than an afterthought. For a number of years now, it has been used as a competition for many teams to field reserve or second-string sides as they look to keep their best players fit and fresh for league fixtures, and it usually results in one of two things happening. Either the top teams all somehow find themselves in the final stages of the competition despite fielding reserve teams in the opening stages of the competition and then begin to take it seriously for bragging rights, more than anything else, or one of the teams that would not normally be expected to challenge for a European spot finds a route through the competition and takes the trophy home, securing an early place in the following season's Europa League, only to end up having a disappointing season in the league.

Last season's competition was a welcome exception to the rule, as Swansea City won their first major trophy in a season where they also impressed in the league, and that wasn't even the biggest story to come out of the competition. Their opponents, Bradford City, pulled off upset after upset en route to a cup final which they really never had any right to be part of, and ultimately the gulf in quality between the Premier League and then-League Two side showed on the say, with Swansea winning 5-0. It marked the first time for a long time that there was a real excitement and enthusiasm about the tournament.

And herein lies the problem.

This season, already every League Two side is out of the competition after the opening two rounds, and we're likely to see a return to the old pattern of seeing the competition won by either one of the top sides fielding a second-string side right up until the final, or a mid-table Premier League side who put so much effort into winning the trophy, they find themselves sacrificing league performance and battling relegation as a result. What this means is that most Premier League sides - particularly those expecting to be in the bottom half of the table - actually secretly want to be knocked out of the tournament before the quarter final stage because it serves as nothing but an undesirable distraction from the primary objective of securing their spot in the Premier League next season. By the time we reach the semi final stage of the competition, there will most likely be at least two sides still in the tournament who harbour ambitions of qualifying for the Champions League, and therefore the prize of winning the competition - a place in next season's Europa League - is effectively wasted.

How do we solve this problem and make the tournament more interesting again? I have four different suggestions, each with pros and cons:

1) Manipulate The Competition

One way of creating more excitement and drama would be to artificially tinker with the competition in the tournament. For example, to basically keep the format as it is, except to stipulate that the lower ranked team in the competition always plays at home to increase the chances of a cup upset, and therefore add intrigue and drama to the tournament.

The potential plus side of this is that it would keep the competition interesting, because a bigger side travelling to the home of a smaller side statistically increases the chances of an upset and it could possibly mean that bigger sides are forced into taking their full strength teams to matches to ensure they aren't embarrassed by a team they are expected to beat. However, attempting to manufacture excitement and drama isn't always something that works and I have no doubt in my mind that it would ultimately backfire if, for example, every top club sent reserve sides to get beaten in the early rounds and two League One clubs made the final. I don't believe that this is the way forward.

2) Change The Incentive

At current, the main prize on offer for winning this competition is a place in next season's Europa League. However, for many clubs this isn't that much of an incentive. The top clubs would prefer to focus on attempting to qualify for the Champions League, the clubs battling against relegation would rather just focus on that, and those clubs somewhere in the middle have the awkward balancing act asked of them by the extra demands placed on them by the amount of extra games in the early part of the season, while the reward is ultimate a few games shown on Channel 5 or ITV4 - not exactly he most lucrative incentive for a lot of clubs. Newcastle last season were a perfect demonstration of what this can do for a club, in 2011-12, they finished 5th in the league and were tremendous overachievers, and yet in 2012-13 found themselves battling in the bottom half of the table for much of the season for exactly this reason.

One solution to this would be to change the prize on offer, and rather than have the winner of the competition win a place in next season's Europa League, you could offer the incentive of Champions League football. (and have 4th place in the Premier League as a Europa League qualifying spot instead) This could work twofold - it would vastly increase the prestige of winning the competition, ensuring clubs take it much more seriously, plus it would bring more fans in through the turnstiles if they knew that winning this tournament carried with it a much greater prize. The obvious flaw in the plan would be if a team from outside the top flight won the competition, could you justify allowing them to compete in the Champions League?

3) Revamp And Re-Launch As A Football League Cup

Another approach to the problem could be to just cut the Premier League teams out of the equation entirely and to make the competition exclusive for the 72 teams in the Championship, League One and League Two. In recent seasons, a number of managers in the Premier League have admitted that they find it difficult to motivate themselves and their teams to play at their best in this competition, so why not just take away the problem altogether?

On the plus side, every team in the tournament would want to win the competition. For teams in the Championship, it would serve as a genuine opportunity to win some silverware and give the club some momentum heading forwards, and perhaps make them a slightly more attractive option than some of their rivals when it comes to competing in the transfer market, while for teams slightly lower down the league pyramid, the incentive of a big cash prize for the winners and runners-up - alongside a big day out at Wembley - would surely provide a big enough incentive for them to give it everything to try and make the latter stages of the competition. I genuinely think it could be quite an exciting alternative, although on the con side, it would leave the dilemma of what to do about the Johnstone's Paint Trophy, because the value of that competition would undoubtedly take a big hit if this were to happen.

4) Scrap The Competition

Although the tournament historically has some value to it, in today's world, the League Cup has almost entirely lost all meaning and purpose. So why not just do what some might call the sensible and respectable thing and do away with the trophy altogether?

There are a lot of pros to this idea, as we no longer have to debate whether there is much point in having a League Cup, nor do we have to bemoan the lack of competition in the tournament because half of its entrants aren't really trying to win it. You wouldn't even have to replace it either, because I'm sure the majority of teams would be glad of having a few less games to play, particularly in the opening part of the season. The only real con to this idea is the fact you would be denying a lower-league side an opportunity to win a major trophy, and although teams from outside the Premier League have made the final for the last two seasons, the last time a team from outside the top flight won the competition was Sheffield Wednesday back in 1991 - before the Premier League launched, so you have to question whether a non-Premier League team could ever win this competition anyway.

It's quite sad that I genuinely can't come up with any real reasons not to scrap the cup, but I guess that only goes the regard - or rather, the lack of - in which the trophy is held in the modern day.
Bruce Halling
Bruce is a 24-year-old self-confessed Football League addict and author of the 'Road To The Promised Land' column. He is a passionate Southend United fan who has witnessed the Shrimpers' rise to the Championship as well as their more recent fall back to their current position in League Two. Though he doesn’t get to many games as a spectator, he has worked at Southend, Colchester United and now Queens Park Rangers as a steward, so is never too far away from the action on a matchday. Away from football, he is a Politics graduate and currently jobhunting. Follow Bruce on Twitter @brucehalling

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