Guide to the League Cup
In This Article
English football's second foremost knockout tournament, the League Cup (or the Capital One Cup if you care to, or indeed can, keep up with its frequently changing corporate sponsorship) has had many different names and formats over the years, during which time it’s provided plenty of drama and memorable moments. Often overlooked as the FA Cup’s ugly cousin, The League Cup frequently provides the sort of ‘giant killing’ upsets that have gone to show that the older competition by no means holds a monopoly on magic.
For examples of this you need look no further back in the annuals of history than last year’s winners Swansea who, in only their second season in the top flight, secured the trophy – the first major piece of silverware the club have ever claimed. Indeed, at the time of writing the last set of fixtures to have been played (the quarter finals of the 2013/14 season) saw a bottom of the table Sunderland knocking out highflying Chelsea with a last gasp, extra time winner. Just three season’s ago Arsenal lost the final to Birmingham City, who were relegated the same season, whilst other ‘smaller’ teams such as Cardiff and Bradford have also appeared at Wembley in finals this decade.
Here we talk you through all you need to know about the intriguing competition.
The League Cup is, like its more famous counterpart, a straight forward knock out competition (there’s no group stage ala the Champions League or the major international tournaments). Teams are eliminated in each round should they lose. If a game is tied at the end of normal time it will go to extra time and, if there is still no winner, the result will be decided by a penalty shoot out. There’s only one exception to this, which is the semi-final round. The semis are played over two legs. Note that there are no replays at any stage in the contest. The semis will have a second leg regardless of the result in the first. This gives each team a chance to play at home and away.
As with contests such as the Champions League if, at the end of the second leg, the aggregate score (the score from both legs combined) sees the teams tied then whoever has scored the most goals away from home is the winner. However, unlike the Champions League, away goals only come into the equation at the end of extra time, not normal time. The final itself is a one off fixture held at Wembley.
Unlike the F.A Cup which can be entered by teams from as far down at the 10th tier of English Football, only the top 92 teams (the teams of the of The Football League, which consist of the Premier League, the Championship, League 1 and League 2) in the country are able to participate.
There are seven rounds, organised so as to leave only 32 teams by the third round. Teams who are involved in European contests (namely the Champions League and Europa League) only enter the contest at this stage. In addition, Premier League sides who aren’t in Europe only come in with the second round.
In each round teams are drawn to face each other at random. Home advantage goes to whichever of the pairing is pulled out of the ‘hat’ (in reality it’s more commonly a bag, bowl or tombola) first. As the semi-final is played over two legs, who is drawn first merely decides who will play at home in the first leg. Interestingly, most people think it preferable to save home advantage for the second leg which is, after all, the decider. As a result, the draw for the semi-final is the only stage you’d prefer to come out second from a footballing point of view.
From a financial point of view, if a smaller team is drawn against a much bigger one, they may well prefer to play away. Though this could hurt their chances of winning, it allows them to sell more tickets. For instance a League 2 side could make significantly more from their allocation of the seats for a game at large stadium like Old Trafford than they could by selling out their own ground. It also makes for ‘a day out’ for fans, for whom seeing their side play at such a ground will provide an enjoyable novelty.
As well as winning the trophy itself, teams that triumph in the final are granted automatic entry into the next season’s Europa League competition, regardless of their league position (normally you’d need to finish 5th in the Premier League or win the FA Cup to qualify). Though it’s only loose change as far as the clubs most likely to win it are concerned, winners also get £100,000 whilst the runner’s up get £50,000.
There is also an individual prize up for grabs in the form of the Alan Hardaker trophy, which is awarded to the best player in the final, decided upon by a panel of judges from Sky Sports.
Believe it or not, the competition is basically the result of technological advancements at football stadiums. By 1960 most grounds had floodlights so it was decided to make the most of the capacity to hold matches in the evening throughout the season by holding a midweek cup competition. Hence the League Cup was born.
Since the inaugural competition the cup has been re-christened various times depending on sponsorship. It’s been known as;
- The Milk Cup
- The Littlewoods Challenge Cup
- The Rumbelows Cup
- The Coca-Cola Cup
- The Worthington Cup
- The Carling Cup
- The Capital One Cup
As well as the name, the format has also changed over the years. The final consisted of two legs for the first six years but changed to be a one off decided on the day there after. It was only in 1968 that the prize of a European spot was thrown into the mix.
From the 70’s until 2001 the first two rounds were played over two legs. They were then changed to one off matches with the potential for a replay until replays too were done away with in 2004.
The final has always been played at Wembley. The only exceptions have been in finals that required a replay (where subsequent ties were held at other neutral grounds with sufficient capacity) and the years 2001-2007, where refurbishments to Wembley meant the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff became the venue of choice.
The Cup's Place in Football
The competition has never been a top priority for the bigger clubs taking part and, before the prize of a Europa League spot was introduced, lower placed sides also often declined to take part. Whilst it was sponsored by Worthing, some cheekily dubbed it the ‘Worthless Cup’ and Arsene Wenger recently claimed “If you win the League Cup it doesn’t change anything” (though it should be noted he isn’t speaking from experience, having never won it despite reaching the final twice.)
Most sides would generally rather win the more prestigious FA Cup or focus on league performance which can bring far more lucrative rewards (for instance, the jump in TV money a team would receive for being promoted to the Premier League, or for qualifying for the Champions League, would, in this day and age, be seen as preferable to the trophy by pretty much any manager).
However, for other clubs who have no chance of promotion or of finishing in one the top five premier league places, it represents a great chance of bagging some silverware and earning a European adventure.
Whilst on the face of it, the fact that it’s not always taken seriously by the top teams should detract from it, the mismatch in different clubs’ level of commitment to the cup actually lends it a great deal of its interest. Big teams tend to field ‘weakened sides’ for League Cup fixtures, which often means playing young prospects not yet ready for the trials of the league. This gives fans a great chance to see raw talent coming through the ranks, or to observe squad favourites who have fallen from the first team and are fighting to get back.
At the same time, it means smaller teams have a decent chance of taking down the giants of the game. Since 1960 the league cup has been won three times by sides from the second flight and twice by sides in the third tier of the game. There have also been notable runners up from the lower leagues. Just last year third tier Bradford got to Wembley. By contrast, no team from the third tier has ever even reached the final of the FA Cup and it’s more than 30 years since a second flight side won it (West Ham in 1980 courtesy of the venerable Trevor Brooking if you were wondering).
Even when it is won by a Premier League side, it’s often a mid-table or lower ranked one. For example:
- 9th placed Swansea won it in 2013.
- Birmingham won it in 2011, a season in which they came 18th and were relegated.
- An 11th placed Tottenham won it in 2008, the same league position they held when they took the trophy in 1999.
- In 2004 Middlesbrough came 11th while winning the cup.
- In 2002 Blackburn took 10th in the league and won the cup.
- An 8th placed Leicester took it in 2000. In 1997 they managed the same feat whilst ending the season one position lower.
As such, the League Cup is arguably one of the most well balanced and interesting competitions in the game.
League Cup Trivia
Pub quiz aficionados, get your notebooks out!
- To date, only one player has won the aforementioned Alan Hardaker trophy twice. Ben Foster picked it up in 2009 whilst at Manchester United (he pulled off a number of saves in normal time and extra time helping keep the score at 0-0, before stepping up to be the star of the ensuing penalty shoot out which United won 4-1) then won it again in 2011 with Birmingham in their shock victory over Arsenal.
- With 8 successes to their name Liverpool have won the trophy more than anyone else. Half of these were won in an impressive consecutive chain, with the reds claiming the cup as their personal property from 1980/81-1983/1984. The only two other sides to have managed to retain the trophy are Nottingham Forest who did it twice (1988/89-1989/90 and 1977/78-1978/79) and Manchester United (2008/9-2009/10).
- Unsurprisingly, the contests all time top scorer is a Liverpool man. Ian Rush netted 49 goals in the competition during his career.
- Liverpool also hold the record for the highest ever win in a League Cup fixture, having smashed Fulham for 10 with no reply in 1986. However, they share this distinction with West Ham who also got into double figures whilst maintaining a clean sheet against Bury three years earlier.
- The final used to go to a replay if tied. If this was a draw there would be yet another replay. This only happened once. In 1977, it took 330 minutes of football to separate Aston Villa and Everton. (Villa eventually won 3-2 after extra time following a 0-0 and a 1-1 draw which also went to extra time. The three matches led fans on a mini tour of the country, from London to Sheffield to Manchester.)
- There have been three different trophy designs for the League Cup. The most recent has been in use since the 1990/91 season.
- Of all the teams to have ever won the trophy, Luton are currently in the lowest position in the English football pyramid. They lifted the cup in 1988 whilst in the highest tier, but currently reside in the conference.
- Sky’s pick of the 10 best finals in the tournament’s history can be found here.
- Fancy a flutter on the League Cup action? Read our Guide to Betting on Football and make sure you pick yourself one of our top 10 football betting sites to place your wager with.