Why the League Cup still means something: The case of Stoke City
There is a common perception within English football that the League Cup, now rebranded as the Carabao Cup, has very little importance or significance in the modern game.
Indeed, there is a strong case to argue that point. The early rounds of the competition are characterised by squad rotation, mass changes to the starting eleven and the blooding of untested young players or the temporary return of ageing stalwarts.
Some clubs appear to treat the cup as an irritation, an unwanted distraction that can disrupt early season momentum, rather than to accept it for what it really is – a genuine opportunity to challenge for a major trophy.
Of course, not every club will have a realistic opportunity to secure a place in the League Cup final at Wembley.
For those that occupy the lower divisions there is minimal hope of winning the competition outright, but the recent exploits of Bradford City, who reached the semi-finals in 2013, has demonstrated that even unfancied sides can benefit from the glory and financial windfall of a good cup run.
For those Premier League clubs that perceive the competition to lack the glamour or appeal of weekly top flight football I have a message – you are wrong.
A genuine opportunity for glory
As a Stoke City supporter I have had very little to celebrate over the course of my lifetime, as I assume the followers of many other provincial clubs around the country can relate to.
Whilst The Potters may be entering their tenth successive season of top flight football the reality is that the club has won just one major trophy in over 150 years of history, the League Cup in 1972, and have appeared in just one, unsuccessful, FA Cup final.
If you were to summarise the entire history of the club you would probably conclude that, for the vast majority of our existence, we have not been very good.
Stoke’s continued participation in the Premier League has transformed the perception and atmosphere around the club. We are no longer a provincial team trying to survive year-to-year, but a global brand (stop sniggering at the back!) that is lavishing in the global spotlight and financial rewards that the top flight of English football facilitates.
However, there is a sense that Stoke have reached something of a glass ceiling. This season the club will finish somewhere in mid-table, barring some sort of catastrophe or heroic run of form, and whilst the team has not genuinely been embroiled in a relegation battle for over half-a-decade there appears to be little hope of challenging the so-called ‘big clubs’ for European football.
Substantial investment in the playing squad, potentially equalling hundreds of millions of pounds, would be required to break into the top six and even then, as Everton have found out so far this season, money is no guarantee of success.
They call it mid-table mediocrity – which is why the defeat on Tuesday evening against Bristol City in the Carabao Cup has left many Stoke supporters, myself included, angry and frustrated.
The Potters conspired to concede two goals in ten second half minutes against a Chempionship side that had made nine changes to the starting eleven from their contest at the weekend.
Mark Hughes also rang the changes but the Stoke team consisted of nine full internationals which included the likes of Darren Fletcher, Peter Crouch, Kurt Zouma and Eric Choupo-Moting. There was certainly no lack of quality on show and yet the fact that Lee Grant was Stoke’s outstanding performer in the 2-0 defeat tells its own story.
For Stoke City supporters the League Cup offers a genuine opportunity for the team to challenge for a major honour. Participation in the Premier League is great but, barring a few ups and downs, the season will end with the club firmly entrenched in a mid-table position.
Fans are desperate for a good run in a domestic cup, not only for glory or to repeat the heroics of 1972, but to break up the monotony of the campaign.
The defeat at Ashton Gate has left supporters regretting a missed opportunity to take a small step towards an appearance in a Wembley final and they will have to wait until the FA Cup kicks in for their side to right the wrongs of Tuesday night.
Because, in contrast to what some managers and clubs appear to perceive, the League Cup still means something to supporters of clubs like Stoke City. Maybe it is time that Mark Hughes, his players and those at other clubs across the country begin to recognise the importance of cup glory.
As my old man commented following Stoke’s defeat against Bristol City “I would like to see us win a trophy in my lifetime” – I am sure that he was not the only supporter shuffling out of the away end at Ashton Gate who holds onto that hope.