The League Cup has surfaced in assorted guises — Milk, Littlewoods, Rumbelows, Coca-Cola, Worthington, Carling and currently Capital One — but in whatever name it has appeared, it has always been something of a poor relation to the FA Cup and League title.
The disinterest was such that in the early days it was irreverently referred to as the “Mickey Mouse Cup” and then the “Worthless Cup”. Top football writer Brian Glanville called the competition “that mammoth irrelevance.”
But try telling that to Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur who will vie for the trophy at Wembley tomorrow. Both teams have already won it four times, suggesting they feel it is something not to be sniffed at. They actually met in the final in 2008, when Spurs won 2-1 after extra time.
It was the first League Cup final at the new Wembley. Didier Drogba put Chelsea ahead in the first half, but Dimitar Berbatov equalised from the penalty spot and then Jonathan Woodgate (remember him?) headed the winner for Spurs in extra time.
Earlier in the season, Chelsea would have come into this match as overwhelming favourites, having beaten Spurs comfortably 3-0 at Stamford Bridge, but lately they have shown signs of wobbling. Neither team will have forgotten Spurs’ stunning 5-3 defeat of Chelsea on Jan 1, with their new star Harry Kane grabbing two goals. It was their first victory over the Blues in almost five years.
Despite Chelsea’s stuttering performances of late, the Blues still go into tomorrow’s final as favourites among bookmakers, even without influential midfielder Nemanja Matic, banned after his clash with Burnley’s Ashley Barnes last weekend.
Spurs are not helped by a punishing schedule which saw them play a demanding Europa League second leg game in Fiorentina on Thursday night — not an ideal warm-up for a Wembley final against the league leaders.
Both Spurs and Chelsea appear fatigued as they brace themselves for the last stretch of the season and it is hard to predict what will happen at Wembley.
Spurs will be hoping that Kane, who has already bagged 24 goals this season, will be in top nick, along with Christian Eriksen and Nacer Chadli who have proved a very effective strike force for Mauricio Pochettino’s team.
Chelsea have a wealth of talent, but they have not been at their smoothest in recent weeks. Jose Mourinho’s team need to loosen up a bit if they are to take their fifth League Cup trophy.
When the competition was first introduced back in 1960, Alan Hardaker, the Football League secretary announced: “If the FA Cup is football’s Ascot, then the League Cup is derby day.” Some observers suggested “donkey derby” might be more accurate after its stuttering start.
A number of the leading clubs at the time — including Tottenham, Wolves, Arsenal, West Brom and Sheffield Wednesday — refused to take part, claiming they already had too many games.
Aston Villa beat Rotherham in the inaugural final, a tedious two-legged affair that hardly had the footballing nation sitting on the edge of its seat. However the clubs gradually changed their tune and since the early 1970s, every team has participated, although not always fielding their strongest sides.
The clubs began to appreciate that the League Cup gave them the opportunity to blood new players who otherwise wouldn’t be given a chance to play first-team football. It also helps benched stars to stretch their legs a bit.
It is argued that the big clubs still regard the League Cup as an unnecessary distraction, a competition not worth shedding too many tears over if they get knocked out. But this is not reflected by the winners in recent years — ask current holders Manchester City.
In the first 25 years, the League Cup was won by 15 different clubs. But things have settled down in more recent times, with big clubs increasingly monopolising possession. Liverpool have been the most successful in the competition, winning eight times, followed by Aston Villa with five trophies, and then Chelsea, Spurs, Manchester United and Nottingham Forest with four apiece.
The inescapable point is that, despite their apparent indifference to the competition, most clubs would be delighted to have the League Cup in their trophy cabinet.
Just like the FA Cup, the League Cup also provides occasional upsets. It was particularly entertaining earlier this season when third tier MK Dons thrashed Man U 4-0 in the second round, a rude welcome to Cup football for Louis van Gaal in his early days at the club.
It was a night to forget for United who had to put up with songs from the home fans like “You’re not famous anymore” and “Can we play you every week?”
There was also considerable glee back in 1969 when Swindon Town of the old Division Three, defeated Arsenal 3-1 in the final.
One team that will look back on their League Cup success with mixed feelings is Norwich City. When the Canaries took the title for the second time in 1985, they became the first club to win a major trophy and be relegated in the same season.
Let’s just hope it’s a decent game tomorrow, although it could well be a very tense match. There is a lot at stake for both Mourinho and Pochettino, which only affirms that the League Cup still has a place in modern football.
One thing for sure, if Chelsea lose, Mourinho will have a list of excuses as long as your arm — and the only person not to blame will be himself.