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  • Writer's pictureWill Uglow

Unpopular Opinion: Why the League Cup is better than the FA Cup

His arm rises to salute an ecstatic crowd who have just witnessed a moment that they can have barely begun to process, but will ultimately never forget. There's still over half an hour to go in this tense semi-final, but his bullet header will soon enter club folklore as the goal that propels the team through to their first cup final in 102 years. He is the fulcrum of a side whose scarcely believable run has captured public imagination, belying their underdog status to stun no less than three top flight outfits on their way to Wembley.

Classic FA Cup storyline, you'd have thought. Well, you'd be wrong...

This is James Hanson. This is Bradford City. And this is the League Cup - to paraphrase a tagline of its more celebrated older brother, "the most underrated cup competition in the world".

The Bantams' miracle march to the final in 2013 was the moment that confirmed my love affair with England's second, much-maligned knockout tournament. By that time, I was already smitten. It was love at first sight in 2011 when a calamitous mix-up in the Arsenal defence allowed Obafemi Martins (League Cup legend) to tap into an unguarded net and secure Birmingham City's first trophy in almost half a century, against all odds. Things heated up further a year later when a spirited Cardiff side pushed my beloved Liverpool all the way in a thrilling 2-2 showpiece, before thankfully succumbing in a penalty shoot-out (which 16 year old me was admittedly too nervous to watch...). And the romance has blossomed at regular intervals in the intervening decade or so - Arsenal recovering from 4-0 down to stun Reading 7-5 in a mad encounter at the Madejski in 2012, Bristol City downing Man United in 2017, Kepa refusing to be substituted in the 2019 final and Newcastle's sublime run to last year's showpiece to name but a few.

The FA Cup, in contrast, has never quite had the same appeal, despite its aggressive annual attempts to seduce me. It strikes me as a bit of a conceited so and so, represented by a prized team of pundits who have either caught the bug or are being paid handsomely to pretend they have. They laud over "the magic of the cup" and "giant-killings", seemingly unaware that any other knockout format exists, let alone is fit to kiss the polished, silvery base of "football's oldest tournament". They parade their darling jug the length and breadth of the country across prime-time terrestrial TV hours, rocking up at unsuspecting grounds expecting a miracle only to try and mask their disappointment when Spurs run out 6-0 winners at Grimsby. They crow about rose-tinted memories of years gone by, blissfully blind to the fact that the "magic" of the cup can't be simply defended by some imagined glory period in the 70's and 80's. There's an entitlement to this grand old competition, an assumption that it's the only place to see David take on Goliath and win.

And herein lies the key reason why I find it's younger, more modest sibling so much more appealing. My argument isn't to suggest that the League Cup is objectively BETTER than its esteemed elder per se. Simply that it's an equally unique and enticing competition that has maintained a sober sense of perspective whereas the FA Cup has become drunk on its own grandeur.

This is most clearly reflected in the disparity between how both competitions are broadcast, despite largely identical formats (7-8 rounds, mostly straight knockout ties, at least 4 tiers of teams, a Wembley final). The FA Cup's latest 4-year broadcast deal sees coverage spread over both BBC and ITV, as well as TNT Sports (formerly BT Sport). This ensures maximum exposure, not just for the final (which is plastered across both main terrestrial channels), but also the earlier rounds. The BBC in particular go ga-ga over anything related to the old pot, interrupting an evening's schedule to bring you Boreham Wood vs Blackpool in Round 1 or hosting cringeworthy hour-long draw programmes live from an overfilled, sweaty looking club lounge (compulsory features include Gary Lineker trying desperately to make the host club's chairman seem enthusiastic about being paired with Carlisle away instead of Man City at home).

The League Cup, meanwhile, spends virtually its entire TV existence trapped behind a paywall on Sky Sports. The guys at Sky do admittedly give the competition strong coverage, showing carefully selected ties in each round and treating the final with a dignity on par with the FA Cup, but that's not the point. A casual fan who can't afford a hefty subscription package could in theory remain completely oblivious to the tournament, barring occasional short, sweet highlights packages and news bulletins of the final. How is this competition meant to grow or expand its viewership when confined to a single paid-for sports channel whilst it's larger, wealthier contemporary enjoys blanket coverage over both main terrestrial networks?

Prize money is another sticking point. This one is more clean cut, verging on ridiculous. The winners of the FA Cup's 2023/24 edition will receive a considerable £2,000,000 into its coffers. As for the League Cup's victors? £100,000. 20 times less. Less, in fact, than the FA Cup's third round winners, who each take home £105,000. A team emerging successfully from a scrappy third round tie between two League One teams in the FA's competition is awarded more than one that has fought off 91 others to triumph in a national competition. Sound fair? Hardly. The League Cup may be the less valuable competition, but not by a factor of 20. Hence, whilst equal prize money would be a step too far, surely a hefty sum needs to be handed from the FA, who control the prize pot in their own competition, to the Football League in order to readdress the balance.

FA Cup diehards may have you believe that this chasm in broadcaster interest and financial incentives can be justified by a lack of public appetite for England's second cup competition. Attendance figures tell a different story. When Liverpool and Chelsea step out under the arches for this afternoon's showpiece, they're likely to be greeted by a crowd of a similar size to the impressive 87,306 that witnessed Man United's victory over Newcastle twelve months ago, beating the FA Cup showpiece's figure of 3 months later (a Manchester derby with City chasing a historic treble, no less) by over 4,000 people.

And whilst this total may have been helped by huge swathes of the Toon Army swarming to the capital to witness the club's first final since 1999, figures of recent years indicate how the League Cup final, played at a colder, less hospitable time of year, holds its own. Across the 14 non-COVID affected seasons where both finals have been played at the new Wembley (2007-08 - 2018-19 and 2021-22 - 2022-23) League Cup finals have averaged a crowd of 86,478, just over 1,000 short of the FA Cup's average of 87,875. The younger competition's lowest crowd in that time was 81,775, and also beat the FA Cup's figure in 2010, 2011 and 2015 (plus, strangely, tying in 2012, when both showpieces apparently attracted exactly 89,041 supporters).

Before suggesting that spectators only take an interest in the League Cup if their team happens to reach the endgame, crowd totals for the earlier rounds of both competitions paint an even more intriguing picture. Since 2002-03, average League Cup attendances across all rounds (including the final) have been bettered by that of the FA Cup in only four seasons (2005/06 - 06/07 and 2010/11 - 11/12). The easy excuse would be to suggest that the FA Cup features several games at non-league grounds. In reality, this holds little weight, with several of the smallest clubs drawing EFL standard crowds for the chance to see a moment of history. Last season's 1st round alone saw minnows South Shields attract 3,800 to see a clash with Forest Green Rovers, whilst 4,921 ventured to Edgar Street to witness Hereford take on Portsmouth. Also take into account the fact that most League Cup games are played on a weekday evening in the autumn or winter, and the illusion that spectators don't value this competition are well and truly shattered.

But at least the FA Cup can cling onto the fact that it holds the lion's share of iconic moments and underdog triumphs, right? Sure, if you really want to live in the land of subjective fantasy and romanticism.

Let's turf out a pretty hefty elephant in the room - the FA Cup specialises in thrilling underdog triumphs.

The reality is that the FA Cup has been largely bereft of true underdog triumphs for the best part of half a century. Not early round shocks, not a miracle run to the quarter finals before unluckily losing at a Championship ground, actual triumphs. When they have happened, they've generally been 1-0 in finals that were against an even bigger underdog (Portsmouth vs Cardiff in 2008), backs to the wall (Wigan vs Man City in 2013) or when the perceived 'underdog' was actually pretty much as accomplished as the team they beat (Leicester vs Chelsea 2021).

The lore of the FA Cup survives on exaggerated tales of spirit and heroism, particularly from a tiresome, imaginary golden era that lasted between about 1973 and 1990. All of the usual suspects are here and get drawn out of the attic every year to tell the grand-kids about - Jim Montgomery's double save for Sunderland, Alan Sunderland's winner for Arsenal, Ricky Villia's dribble, "And Smith must score!", Kieth Houchen's diving header, Dave Beasent's save, Alan Pardew's header against Liverpool, etc, etc. These are, of course, all great moments in their own right, but the BBC's insistence on relying on them to carry the hype of the entire competition is naive and tiresome at best.

Lineker and co would love to tell you about a final where third-tier Colchester came back from 2-0 down against Arsenal to emerge victorious, or when Man United were stunned by Tranmere, but it just hasn't happened yet. Instead, they're left to deflect attention from the awkward fact that only 3 finals since 1996 have been won by a team other than Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool or the two Manchester teams.

The League Cup, meanwhile, boasts several stories that the FA Cup would dearly love to lay claim to. In terms of finals alone, take your pick from the following;

Third tier QPR overcoming a 2 goal deficit against First Division West Brom to emerge 3-2 victors in 1967. Another Third Division side, Swindon Town, humbling the mighty Arsenal 3-1 two years later. Underdogs Oxford and Luton Town emerging victorious in the late 80's. Middlesbrough ending their trophy duck in '04. The aforementioned Birmingham success in 2011 and Swansea's victory against Bradford. Outside of the showpiece, we've had the likes of Scarborough knocking out Chelsea in 1989, York City's 3-0 success at Old Trafford in 1996 and Grimsby winning 2-1 at Anfield in 2002.

There are, also, practical elements where the League Cup arguably prospers over its older compatriot.

First and foremost, there is a cleaner, less cluttered schedule. The League Cup being played over 6 rounds rather than the FA Cup's 7 may not seem like too great a difference, but a lack of replays makes redundant what has become one of the latter competition's most enduring issues. All League Cup ties are decided on the night up until the semi-final stage (more on that in a moment...). 2023-24 also sees extra-time outlawed throughout the tournament, meaning that any draws after 90 minutes go straight to penalties. As well as helping to ease fixture congestion, this tweak gives the competition an increased sense of jeopardy and forces teams to attack. Particularly in ties where a plucky underdog is playing at home, the more illustrious visitors can't simply defend for a stalemate in the hope of securing a replay at their own stadium.

Another interesting League Cup quirk is the two legged semi-final, played out in a home-and-away format similar to European competitions. This enhances the tournament's identity, in addition to negating another contentious (and horrendously dull) issue unique to the FA Cup - whether semi-finals should be played at Wembley or not. The League Cup's solution is simple and no less exciting - offer each team the opportunity to fire themselves to the capital at their home ground, leaving Wembley to star where it's meant to - in the showpiece.

That showpiece's modern home in late February or early March has also established the League Cup as a unique psychological tool for sides searching for momentum approaching the campaign's run-in. Whilst the FA Cup is often scooped at a sun-soaked Wembley in May by clubs looking to salvage an otherwise disappointing campaign, an League Cup triumph under the evening stars months earlier can provide a springboard for teams chasing greater glories come the season's end. Particularly in the last decade, sides have made a habit of this. Man City's vintages of 2014, 2018, 2019 and 2021 all tasted Carabao success under the arches before going on to win the Premier League, whilst Liverpool used their 2022 victory as the launchpad for a sustained quadruple bid and Man United's 2023 glory pushed them on to Champions League qualification (albeit via a historic 7-0 defeat at Anfield the Sunday after their Wembley triumph...). The League Cup rarely defines a season, but it can provide a telling chapter in its eventual story.

This is a competition, in short, that needs championing, not scrapping. A hefty terrestrial TV deal may seem a long way off, but even showing the final live on BBC and ITV would boost the tournament's reputation and provide a fair reflection of the 86,000 that see fit to flock Wembley to support their team each year.

A more befitting sponsor would also help, apologies Carabao. This is something the EFL generally got right in the competition's earlier years, but a far-eastern energy drink company with gaudy pine-green branding seems a rare misstep that fails to set the right tone. Previous partners such as 'Carling' and 'Warburtons', ensured a strong British brand for the tournament, which seems to have been diluted in its latest guise. Heck, even a return to being sponsored by milk would be an improvement.

There is, however, also room for true innovation. A guarantee of European qualification for the winning side is a boon that the competition thankfully still holds, albeit demoted from the Europa League to the less prestigious Conference League, and has provided the likes of Swansea and Birmingham with a path to the continental stage. But why not take it a stage further?

Remove England's fourth (or potentially soon to be fifth) Champions League qualification spot from the Premier League and award it instead to the winner of a direct end of season play-off between the victors of the two domestic cups. Yes, you read that right. The match would be held no more than a couple of weeks after the season's conclusion and would fill Wembley once again. In cases where one of the two cup winners had already secured league entry to Europe's elite competition, the best performing non-qualifier in that competition would take part. Potential match-ups in the last decade or so would have provided the likes of Swansea, Wigan, Sunderland, Aston Villa and even Man United with a one-game shot at reaching the European Cup.

Whatever moves are made that impact the League Cup's future, they need to be ambitious, progressive and look to enhance the competition rather than simply sideline it. Like it or not, this is a tournament entrenched in the history of English football, provider of some of its most iconic and enduring moments and intertwined in its narrative. England is a rare example of a country that can boast not one but two excellent, fully functioning domestic cup competitions. At best they complement and strengthen each other, not diminish each other. But a balance needs readdressing. Future James Hansons deserve their place in the spotlight alongside Ilkay Gundogans, Steven Gerrards and Alan Sunderlands.

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