Capital One Conundrum

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The 88th Minute is here and I’d like to immediately call the Capital One Cup into question.

This competition for years has attracted controversy as to its importance, significance, and necessity, certainly with the already-loaded fixture list, the loaded winter period, and the complete lack of a winter break (which is another debate entirely).

I will be candid in saying, first and foremost, that anyone who tries to defend this competition in its current format is fighting a lost cause.  Depending on your viewpoint, that may or may not be a bold statement to make – but let’s look at a few things.  For the sake of staying with the times, I’m not going to go back too far:

1. This competition did not save Kenny Dalglish’s job, and that’s before Liverpool returned to significance.

2. Nobody remembers that the Champions, Manchester City, won this competition last season.  Yes, that’s right, they won it last season!

3. The most talented players don’t care about this competition.

4. Clearly, as implied in #2, neither the media nor the general fanbase care about this competition.

5. The last time the Capital One Cup was exciting?  When Bradford City improbably made it to the final.

Again, I’m going to be candid (and a bit harsh).  The only reason Bradford City made it to the final is the same reason any of the lower league teams seem to enjoy a degree of success in this competition:  The top league just doesn’t really care that much about it.  Even the mid-table sides like Swansea, who won it and grabbed their first trophy, do not prioritize this competition.  The mid-table sides want to see if they have a chance at scrapping with the top 6.  They also want to avoid falling into a relegation battle.  The lower-table sides want to avoid that relegation battle at all costs.  And the top sides?  They’ve got bigger fish to fry.

Is that a sweeping generalization of lower league sides?  You could probably say so.  If there are any devout fans of any of these sides reading this, I don’t intend to offend you.  Be honest – the Capital One Cup is more important to you than it is to me.  Fair?

We can make fun of Manchester United all we want, but when you look at their position in the table now (whether you view it as lucky or not), stop and think for a second… van Gaal comes in with a squad to completely overhaul (no matter how much Fergie doesn’t want to admit the mess he left).  Do you think he’s going to give even one small crap about a second-rate competition that will only put further strain on his limited side that already has various injuries?  No.  Not a chance.  He’s got injuries, he’s barely got a squad, and he was already complaining about the fixture list to begin with (welcome to England, dude); the last thing he needs is another competition to worry about.  To van Gaal, the lack of Europe is a blessing in disguise.  He gets valuable time with his squad in between each game, and, if he’s as good as he says he is, maybe he can just get his side in the top 4 by Christmas.

Yes, I am completely suggesting that United threw the game against MK Dons.  I’m also suggesting that it’s a strategy that worked.

The fixture list in England, coupled with the lack of a winter break, is an ongoing (and like many things in English football, never solved) discussion with no clear solution in sight.  Nobody knows it, no players will acknowledge it, but yes, some players quite frankly do leave England so that they can get a winter break.  It happens.

I won’t point to (but will briefly acknowledge) the “we’ve already got the FA Cup” debate.  We all know that.  What I will do is explain things in a different light:

The League Cup was an idea originally conceived by Sir Stanley Rous, a man who made great contributions to football as well as the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.  His idea for the League Cup was that it would provide consolation to those already knocked out of the FA Cup.  Rous, however, did not personally implement the competition – Alan Hardaker did.  Hardaker’s idea was that the competition would help make up for lost revenue due to a re-organization of the league, which ended up not being immediately forthcoming.  But even to that end, the introduction of the League Cup was widely criticized to begin with due to the introduction of the European Cup just five years prior, also to be played in midweek.

Some felt that the League Cup (get this) would actually hurt England’s progress as a footballing nation (due to quantity of games causing quality to suffer; hard to argue against) and certainly hurt English sides in the scope of this all-important European Cup competition.  Now, Rous would go on as FIFA President to witness England’s 1966 World Cup victory, but since then?  Can you believe that people had been arguing that since the beginning?  It’s just a real shock, isn’t it?

If revenue could ever be an argument, times change, the footballing economy has changed A LOT, and we’ve had lots of inflation.  What hasn’t changed much?  The League Cup.  The winners of the competition, to this day, are awarded £100,000.  The runner-ups get £50,000.  This is current.  Can you imagine Sheikh Mansour’s reaction to getting that check?  To most sides (except for maybe a Bradford City), this reward is incredibly insignificant.  The FA Cup award is £2,000,000 and the Premier League revenues (distributed based on league position) and Champions League revenues (obviously) are much higher.  Do you wonder why the top league doesn’t care about this competition?  I mean, heck, promotion to the Premier League is a MUCH sweeter prize for a Championship side.  Even getting relegated from the Premier League will fetch you more money than that!

Managers try to counter the crowding by fielding regularly-seated and even youth academy players in the Capital One Cup.  What this leaves us with is the unfortunate first-team players who have been selected largely phoning in their performances, and thus highly-motivated lower league sides who think they can nick one.  Is it because they legitimately believe they can beat a top side?  No.  It’s because they know that top side might just let them have it.

Is that really what we want from a competition?

Football Association new boy Greg Dyke, who, as any authoritative figure in English football will do, somehow attracts controversy here and there, has come forward wanting more initiative from the academies and flat-out wants more English players in the English game.  He is stringent in trying to inspire change that some people are, for some reason, resistant to, but he appears to be gathering the right amount of support and we just might have some changing times on our hands.  Heck, Chelsea has even given FIVE academy debuts in 2014.  Something crazy must be happening, right?

If you ask me, I think in order to help kill some of the debate around the League Cup, it should be repurposed.  Here’s what we have:  First-team competitions and academy competitions.  We have the U-21, U-19, U-18 leagues.  We have the FA Youth Cup.  And then boom, from there it’s first-team and you’d better hope you’re swimming within three seconds.

If some managers field academy players in the League Cup to give their first-team players a rest (*cough*, “give the academy kids some experience”), why not play to that?

We do have a precedent in football for this:  The Olympics.  Teams will select a squad of U-23 players and allow three players over the age of 23 to take part in the competition.

That might be a bit extreme for league sides to adjust to.  So why don’t we say something like this:

1) A side must field no more than 7 players from the 25-man first team squad.

2) This DOES include those who don’t regularly start (such as a Mohamed Salah, Chelsea fans).  Those who don’t regularly start CANNOT be included in the youth aspect.

3) There is no limit on the amount of youth/academy players that can be named in the 18-man matchday squad.

4) The first-team manager must be involved on the touchline, even as an assistant to his no. 2.

This approach, by putting a limit on the first-team players and not the youths, actually helps a manager strategize as to who needs a rest, who needs game time, who is injured, etc.  And then from there, he can select his academy players accordingly.  A minimum of four would be guaranteed starting XI involvement on any matchday, with the potential total going even higher than that.  If all 20 Premier League sides are required to field at LEAST 4 academy players, then we have an involvement of 80 youth players at minimum at the initial stage of each team’s involvement.  The multiplication only continues from there.

Also, requiring the first-team manager’s involvement (instead of taking the day off, like some do) helps hold a connection between the first-team and the youth squad, as the manager’s presence is always felt and it can still “feel” like the players are all on the same team, rather than divided by two levels.  The no. 2 can still take the reins at the first-team manager’s discretion, but the management structure is never split.

These requirements would of course apply to all teams, not just Premier League teams.  Would it make the playing field uneven?  No.  By all technicalities, it is completely level.  Plus, you must account for the likelihood that the first-team players who are still involved may still phone it in.  By no means does this hurt any lower league side’s chances of succeeding in the competition; it simply throws much more emphasis into the youth product of England (and other countries) and gives these young players a real chance to connect with the first-team and feel a transition, rather than being thrown to the wolves and squandering the only chance they may ever have, depending on the size and quality of their club.

I’m only one man, but I think this repurposing of the competition as a gateway for the youth players would rebrand and reenergize the competition, not just for the players but for the managers, for the administrators, for the fans, for all of football.  The excitement around Ruben Loftus-Cheek making his debut against Sporting was real, and it built up a lot, and we didn’t even know how much time he’d get.  In the end, he got “only” 11 minutes.  Imagine the excitement in knowing that each Capital One Cup match guarantees STARTS for at least four young players, and others could be involved through substitution.  It becomes something completely different and everyone gets to keep an eye on the future.  I think that it would unilaterally restore excitement to the competition in all league divisions of English football – and maybe we unearth some real stars along the way.

You can follow me on Twitter @sverige1089.  Thanks for reading. 🙂

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