The EFL Trophy has come in for much criticism from fans and pundits alike, and whilst the inclusion of under 21 sides has caused concern, it is hardly damaging a prestigious competition. Whatever name it has laboured under since the late 1980’s, it will always have been talked about as the ‘Mickey Mouse’ trophy.
Now the BBC are reporting that the EFL Cup, Carabao Cup or (as most normal people know it) the League Cup is also being devalued. Former Everton player Leon Osman, speaking on Radio 5 Live, said; “If fans know their manager is not going to pick the strongest team then they don’t want to turn up. Tonight’s a top game against Premier League opposition but the supporters haven’t come. Maybe the changes devalue the competition.”
He was talking from the Sheff Utd and Leicester game, where 11,000 fans turned up in a stadium that has a capacity of almost 33,000. Is Osman right? The BBC claim that there were 274 team changes made across the 19 ties, which is an average of seven changes per team. Does the fact the draw id held in China under farcical conditions weaken fans trust and support of the cup? Is the EFL rebrand to blame for waning interest in both competitions, not just the lifelong Mickey Mouse cup, but also the once prestigious League Cup?
I decided to go back in time and look at a couple of ties from days gone by. To start I picked the second round of the 2005/06 competition, a year City made it to round two. After beating Crewe we faced Fulham at Craven Cottage, and that seemed a good place to start.
On that day seventeen years ago, Fulham made 11 changes to their starting line up for our match. Out went such luminaries as Steed Malbranque and Louis Boa Morte from their 2-1 home defeat by West Ham on the 17th, and in came Zesh Rehman and Heidur Helguson. On the Saturday prior to the game we lost 2-1 at home to Peterborough, and for the Fulham game we made three changes. In came Maheta Molango, Francis Green and Gareth McAuley. I suspect McAuley returned after an injury, but nonetheless that is three changes. From our tie that means 14 changes across two teams, an average of seven.
On the same night as our epic battle with Fulham, Doncaster hosted a pre-billionaire Man City having played host to Scunthorpe the Saturday prior. One change was made by Doncaster, Lewis Guy replaced Jonathan Forte up front. Man City lost 1-0 at home to Bolton on the Saturday, but for their trip to Belle Vue they made four changes.
The final match from the same night we played Fulham was between Blackburn Rovers and Huddersfield, two teams that have enjoyed sharply contrasting fortunes since. Top flight Blackburn made four changes, whilst League One Huddersfield made just two.
With numbers of changes in brackets, other ties included Wycombe (2 changes) against Aston Villa (2), Grimsby (1) versus Spurs (3), Sheff Weds (5) taking on West Ham (8), Scunthorpe (3) hosting Birmingham (5), Sunderland (9) playing Cheltenham (3), and Mansfield (2) against Southampton (11). On average that is four changes per team.
Going even further back, I chose the night we beat Man City 4-1. That was September 1996, 21 years ago (bet you feel old now). For the legendary victory we made just one change from the side that beat Barnet 1-0 the Saturday before. Jae Martin replaced Steve Brown. Man City made just two.
Without boring you too much other ties included Scarborough (1) hosting Leicester (5), Bury (2) against Crystal Palace (1), Fulham (2) versus Ipswich (1), Watford (2) taking on Sunderland (1) and Luton (1) hosting Derby (2). That is an average of just under two per team.
I think these numbers, although only a small section of the ties, prove that slowly the attitudes towards the competition are changing. I don’t think it is wholesale, both us and Rotherham made four changes for our first round tie which is more in keeping with twelve years ago than last night, nor do I think the attitudes are down to recent changes by the EFL. I would really like them to be, the whole ‘draw in China’ thing is farcical and in my opinion does devalue the competition, but I don’t think that’s the reason for the number of changes. Nor do I think the claims of declining crowds is accurate.
I’ll deal with crowds first, in 1996 the cost of supporting you team was considerably less. Although it didn’t seem it at the time, there were less games on TV too, which meant more incentive to go out and watch your team play. I wonder how many Coca-Cola Cup games were shown live in 1996? I bet none in the first and second rounds, perhaps one if you were lucky. So far, after just 18 days of the EFL season we’ve had three Carabao Cup games, with another one tonight. That’s Colchester and Villa, Bury and Sunderland, West Ham play Cheltenham tonight, and, crucially, Sheffield United v Leicester City.
Sheffield United were at home on Saturday against Barnsley, and they’re at home to Derby again this weekend. Along with the cup game that is three games in a week, how many hard-working fans have over £70 to spare for three games in a week? If one is on TV, which are you likely not to attend? The FA or EFL can moan about falling attendances all they want, but three games in a week is a stretch for any fan of any club. If Lincoln played Notts County, a Carabao Cup tie against Leicester reserves live on TV and then Chesterfield all in one week, which matches could you afford to attend? Which would be likely to be dropped?
In truth the attendances at EFL Cup games are as high now as they have been, and it was interesting to see the BBC contrasting spectators against capacity of the grounds. In all of your lifetime, how often have you known the League Cup matches to sell out a ground? The night we played Man City, arguably the biggest draw we could have gotten at that stage, we had 7599 fans compared to a 10,000 (ish) capacity. Does that mean we shunned the competition? Of course not. According to this stats website attendances for the League Cup have actually increased to their highest level since 1973. Last season the average attendance in the League Cup was 15,728 up from around 10,000 throughout the 1990’s. This could be due to the removal of two-legged first round ties, those mundane matches against Hartlepool and Scarborough will have pulled the average down, but even since those were abolished in 2002 attendances have steadily climbed.
It is clear that the changes sides are making is actually of no consequence to the paying fan. As an Imps fan I’d be just as happy watching us take on the Arsenal reserves side, because in this day and age those 11 Arsenal players would still be top class.
It is folly to compare the changes teams made twenty years ago to now, because football has changed so much. For a start clubs give their reserve players far more action, even at League Two level. John Beck perhaps operated with a squad of fifteen or so, with the fringe lads getting the odd kick here and there, whereas Danny will try to get minutes into all of his players. The same will occur up and down the country, lower league clubs are far more advanced than they were. Squads are much more competitive, and with advances in sports science the number of minutes players get is keenly monitored.
The rewards for climbing the leagues are greater now as well, which will leave teams being careful with players ahead of crucial league clashes. Back in the day our tie with Man City was a real money spinner, and the chance of winning and progressing was important. With so much at stake in the modern game, and financial reward for promotion so lucrative, is there any surprise if lower league clubs exercise their whole squad? Certainly the money in the Premier League is significantly better than ten years ago, is there any shock again that clubs in that division chose to rotate their squad in the lesser competitions? Squad sizes have grown too, the bigger teams have so many players at their disposal, why would they risk a £60m full-back against a League Two side, when the £10m guy they’ve had on the bench for four weeks could do with minutes?
So to answer my original question, no I do not think the League Cup is being devalued, and neither do paying fans. It is certainly changing, evolving perhaps, but it clearly still holds interest for proper football supporters. Attendances are up despite it being on the TV more, and with those weakened sides comes increased chance of a giant killing. For ambitious young managers such as Danny Cowley it represents a chance to test your skills against better teams, and for big clubs it gives them a chance to get minutes into fringe players. Gone are the days when Chelsea or Arsenal throw their starting eleven into a third round tie at Shrewsbury, but in truth that sort of romantic ideal went a long time ago, around the time Sky TV changed the face of English football forever.