Monday, May 20, 2024

Anti Nowhere League Cup

The domestic cups still matter to me as much as they always did. I have a hard time convincing people that I am being genuine when I say that. I am certain people think I am being contrary, or knowingly ‘old school’, but it is the truth. My first year as a season ticket holder was the 1992-93 season. Arsenal finished 10th and won both domestic cups and I thought it was a tremendous season.

Both of those cup finals gave me some of my favourite memories as an Arsenal fan. Of being hoisted up onto the shoulders of the guy behind me when Merson equalised in the Coca Cola Cup Final. Of serenading the Spurs fans with a rendition of “A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Venables Go Down” at the semi-final in 93, a beautifully witty swipe at the acrimonious fallout between Terry Venables and Alan Sugar.

I always felt like the cups were hugely important and I haven’t ever seen a good reason to let go of that, even if the football population more generally has. I entirely understand why the domestic trophies have lost their gloss over the years and I can also empathise with the choices that managers make. Were I a coach of a side battling relegation, I too would likely pick a second string team for the cups and try to stay on the Premier League gravy train.

Winning the League Cup rarely satisfies a Board of Directors nowadays. Manuel Pellegrini, Jose Mourinho, Michael Laudrup, Kenny Dalglish, Juande Ramos and Alex McLeish have all lost their jobs less than a year after winning the trophy over the last decade. The League Cup has always been a bit of a rascal competition, devised by Alan Hardaker partly to try and prevent English teams from competing in European tournaments.

The League Cup was also introduced as a midweek competition so that football clubs could show off their floodlight installations, a relatively recent innovation at the tournament’s inception. Football League President Joe Richards described it as “an interim step”, a concession to the fact that the league was to be reorganised so that there would be fewer fixtures in a time when gate receipts provided the totality of a club’s income.

It resumed a little lustre in the mid-80s when English clubs were banned from competing in Europe- in a sort of inversion of Hardaker’s dream. Otherwise, it has long been awkward and a little unloved. Most countries do not have an equivalent cup and if the League Cup did not exist in 2018, nobody would seek to invent it. Arsene Wenger first began playing shadow sides in the then Coca Cola Cup back in 1997.

Yet I have always really enjoyed competing in it. Even the trophy looks a little alien, with its three handles. All tournaments are contrived for our entertainment and its difference to the Premier League and the FA Cup have always had a weird kind of attraction for me. In many ways, I prefer it to the FA Cup, because there is no pretence with this slightly unloved stepchild of a trophy. Its romance and tradition is not relentlessly marketed to the point of pastiche.

The fact that clubs appear to care little about it means it often produces some absolutely crazy matches. All ties are settled on the night nowadays, which can lend itself to this air of the surreal. In September 2014, Liverpool and Middlesbrough had to be separated by a penalty shootout which required 30 kicks to separate them.

Arsenal defeated Rotherham 9-8 on penalties in the 3rd round of the 2003-04 League Cup. This just doesn’t seem to happen in other competitions. Penalties are often defined by pressure, but early round League Cup ties lack that sort of tension, which means spot kicks are converted with greater ease. It’s difficult to imagine Arsenal trailing Reading 4-0, before going on to win 7-5 after extra time in any other setting.

The Gunners’ relationship with the cup of innumerable sponsors has been a fairly tortured one. They have only won the trophy twice, the last occasion 25 years ago. Leicester, Manchester City, Nottingham Forest, Spurs (!), Chelsea, Aston Villa, Manchester United and Liverpool have all won this cup more often than Arsenal, who are tied with Norwich, Birmingham and Wolves on 2 league cup baubles apiece.

The final has seen some of Arsenal’s more embarrassing moments. The 1968 final loss to Don Revie’s emerging Leeds side was to be expected, but a year later, the Gunners suffered one of the most embarrassing and calamitous defeats in their history. A squad beset by a flu virus lost 3-1 to Third Division Swindon Town on a Wembley surface still bearing the track marks of the Horse of the Year show just days before the match.

All of the goals have a total air of calamity about them on a quagmire of a surface. Arsenal had no such excuse in the 1988 final, when they were defeated in the final by Luton Town on a manicured pitch. Arsenal led 2-1 in the 81st minute when Nigel Winterburn missed a penalty. Winterburn wearing number 2 and playing at right-back just adds to the air of unfamiliarity.

He had never taken a penalty for Arsenal before and never took another. Luton scored twice in the last 7 minutes in a game that will be remembered for the complete destruction of Gus Cesar’s reputation and his subsequent tumble into obscurity. In 2007, the Gunners’ final defeat ended in a 20 man brawl that saw Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho run onto the pitch and separate their warring players.

Arsenal decided to stick with the team of kids and squad players that had gotten them to the final and, well, let’s say the wounds are still a little too fresh to rehash the disastrous 2011 Carling Cup Final defeat to Birmingham City, one of my worst experiences as an Arsenal supporter. It is fair to say that this competition has not smiled upon the Gunners.

Yet Arsenal and the League Cup has not been an entirely miserable marriage. The 1987 semi-final victory at White Hart Lane is widely considered one of the most revered nights in the club’s history and will forever stand as a document to the legend of David Rocastle. The subsequent final victory against Liverpool is likewise held in supreme esteem.

An exciting young Gunners side- the genesis of an exciting new manager- defied the odds to beat the much fancied Liverpool on a scorching day at Wembley. Arsenal even put a stop to the oft repeated trivia that Liverpool never lost when Ian Rush scored, overturning his early goal with a Charlie Nicholas brace. It was Arsenal’s first trophy for 8 years and is considered the precursor to the 1989 and 1991 league title wins.

The 1993 Final against Sheffield Wednesday was the first trophy I ever saw Arsenal win in person. I distinctly remember sobbing when Paul Merson equalised, as the gentleman behind me hoisted my delicate 9 year old frame onto his shoulders. Unlike Steve Morrow a little later that afternoon, I descended safely back to terra firma thereafter. It was the first match in English football history that saw players wear names and squad numbers on the back of their shirts, which I recall looking really weird and a bit American through my young, uncultured eyes.

Arsenal and the League Cup has been a slightly awkward relationship. In the mid-2000s, it was used as a laboratory for the club’s emerging young talents. But as the average age of the squad has crept up, it has undoubtedly been robbed of even its novelty value. Form and quality will make Manchester City heavy favourites on Sunday, but if Arsenal’s history in this awkward lovechild of a competition is anything to go by, it is probably better that way.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto– Or like my page on Facebook

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