A fine wine is supposed to mature and get better with time and age.
The taste and the intensity are meant to continually develop. However, that has not been the been the case with the League Cup, The Carabao Cup, The EFL Cup, or whatever guise it has been given during the current campaign, according to a lot of supporters.
Appeals to discontinue the competition have been strong from most quarters for the competition that has been running since 1960. Premier League bosses have bemoaned the competition for resulting in packed fixture schedules for their expensively-assembled squads. Some though have become connoisseurs of the trophy, and had it not been for a shock 2-1 defeat at the hands of Bristol City, José Mourinho’s love affair could have continued.
After overcoming Manchester United, the Championship outfit now have the chance to make a major cup final for the first time in 108 years, albeit with the huge challenge of a two-legged semi-final tie against Premier League leaders Manchester City to pass through first of all. Their story this season has captured the imaginations of fans and it could see interest again peak following the halcyon days of the competition during the 1990’s.
Magic of the 'Mickey Mouse' Cup
Whilst the most enamoured of the English football cup competitions will always be the FA Cup, the League Cup still possesses its fair share of shocks and giant-killings. Having dismissed of four Premier League teams this season, Bristol City are well-deserving of their spot in the last-four.
Then-League One outfit Sheffield United reached the same stage two campaigns ago. During the 2011/12 season, there were in fact two Championship teams featuring in the semi-finals. Crystal Palace were eliminated in the final-four, with Cardiff City reaching the final only to be defeated by Liverpool in a penalty shoot-out.
Memories are also provoked of Bradford City’s fairy-tale run in 2013. The Bantams managed to dismiss the likes of Arsenal and Aston Villa to reach Wembley. They were eventually defeated 5-0 by Swansea City in the final, but the run propelled the club into the public eye, a glittering advantage of the competition for a lowly outfit.
The Yorkshire club also earned a reported minimum £1.4million in prize money for their dream run, a huge amount to a then-fourth tier club.
Birmingham City though did go one step better in 2011 and lifted the trophy. Facing the Gunners, the unfancied Blues defeated their Premier League rivals to claim the title – their first major trophy since 1963, the unpredictability of the competition alive and well for all to see.
The sheer amount of these teams reaching the latter stages could highlight an air of competitiveness in the trophy. Whilst the FA Cup is usually dominated by the top-six in the Premier League, the League Cup has become increasingly more difficult to retain.
Manchester United are the only club to have managed back-to-back titles since 1990. There have been an outstanding 23 different winners of the League Cup since its inception back with teams currently positioned in all leagues of the English football pyramid having lifted the trophy.
Only four teams throughout the history of the competition have managed to retain the title year-on-year, those being Manchester United, Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa. The sheer fact that no other team has managed to repeat their feats of the previous campaign indicating the higher amount of interest in the competition for the other teams besides those possibly more favoured in winning the cup.
Europe beckons after silverware
One of the motives of success in the League Cup is the tantalising prospect of European football. Lifting the trophy currently leads to participation in the UEFA Europa League and clubs have taken advantage of this.
Even those who do not go on to success in the final can get a taste of Europe – Southampton the most recent following their 3-2 defeat to Manchester United. Despite the Saints failing to progress past the group stages, it was a fresh offering of Premier League talent travelling abroad. With the league craving international appeal all around the world, it could only be seen as a positive.
Even Swansea City back in 2013/14 managed to impress as they reached the Round of 32, beating Valencia 3-0 at the Mestalla in the process. Birmingham City also enjoyed an extended run following their success in the League Cup. These clubs may not have had the pleasure of experiencing European football had it not been for the League Cup.
Can’t win anything with kids
Whilst teams who can afford to give attention to the competition really do push for success, the so-called bigger clubs have been accused of making too many changes for the competition. Take for example the quarter-final clash between Leicester City and Manchester City this month. The two teams made a combined sixteen changes between them for the clash.
Despite the angry backlash from supporters, eight of the players starting from kick-off were 23 and under – quite an incredible increase on the Premier League average. There could be an argument from some corners suggesting this is managers not prioritising the competition.
The players though are getting experience of competitive, first-team football - a limited commodity for youth in the modern era. It will only be an advantage for the English national team to see these young players breaking through with help of the competition.
There is no sport without fans
Players are without doubt feeling the advantages of the Carabao Cup but it is also a positive for supporters too. In a day of ever-increasing expense in the Premier League, the majority cannot afford to watch their team.
The EFL Cup though provides the most sought-after opportunity to attain tickets, whether that be to a top-flight stadium or a more modest arena. It allows yet more exposure as a result of cheaper tickets and possibly less interest from the more regular attendees.
The wider-ranging influence of football continues to spread throughout Englihs football.
How can it be fixed, then?
With all of this combined, surely there is enough reason to suggest that the Carabao Cup has to remain a key part of the English football calendar. There needs to be improvement however. Prize money has to increase as an incentive for the Premier League clubs. It may then be perceived as a competition worth paying attention too.
Whilst Bristol City remain in the competition though, it is still a wonderful, cheap wine beating off competition from the far greater competitors. Let’s hope it ages just as well.