The League Cup was first introduced in the 1960-61 season to replace the Southern Professional Floodlit Cup and entails all 92 clubs in the English football hierarchy competing over the winter period. Now known as EFL Cup, or Carabao Cup due to sponsorship reasons, seven rounds play out from August in the build-up to a February final at Wembley Stadium – three months before the campaign officially ends. The domestic competition was rebranded from the name ‘League Cup’ in 2016 due to the Football League’s minimal transformation into the English Football League.
The EFL Cup consists of seven rounds, with every match needing to be settled on the night instead of being replayed like in the FA Cup apart from the semi-finals which are decided across two legs with the away goals rule only applying after extra-time. Also unlike the FA Cup, matches take place during the week under the floodlights instead of at weekends, giving clubs the opportunity to give fringe and young players game time – especially top clubs. This suggests that clubs consider it as a low priority, and it’s because of this that the EFL Cup has a fairly poor reputation amongst the footballing world in comparison to other domestic knockout competitions.
The difference in prize funds for winning the FA Cup and EFL Cup certainly don’t help the latter’s reputation, considering the winners receive a flimsy £100,000 in comparison to the £2m the FA are willing to fork out. This emphasises the difference in size and popularity while the EFL Cup not required to complete the ‘treble’ also minimises its importance to the more advanced sides. Premier League clubs enter the competition in Round Two alongside Championship representatives unless you’re in Europe in the same season, then you are handed a bye and enter in Round Three.
Because of how much the top flight teams tend to field inexperienced players in the EFL Cup, the possibility of giant-killings is much greater than in any other cup competition and we’ve seen some prime examples of that in the 21st century. The most notable out of the lot has got to focus on what unfolded on August 24th, 2014 where League One hopefuls MK Dons hosted worldwide heavyweights Manchester United – right after the Red Devils secured the signature of Ángel di María for a club record fee. Louis van Gaal was taught a powerful lesson of respect as the Dons thumped United 4-0 after the Dutchman started just five recognised internationals.
Everyone loves a good underdog story as well, and there’s been plenty in the history of this competition. Bradford City’s quest in the 2012-13 term was one of the most memorable as Phil Parkinson led the Bantams to the final, knocking out Premier League opposition on the way. The West-Yorkshire club were in League Two at the time and after beating Arsenal on penalties in the quarter-finals and Aston Villa 4-3 on aggregate in semis were the lowest ranked team to reach the final stage since Rochdale in 1992. Despite being meritoriously overturned by Swansea City 5-0 at Wembley in what was the biggest final win ever, their run highlights the magic cup competitions offer and it certainly won’t be the last time we see anything like it.
The Football League launched the idea of League Cup to rival the Football Association when tensions were high between the two in the late 1950s and European football was on the rise as England was getting left behind. At first, the cup acted as a consolation for those knocked out of the FA Cup at the request of then-FIFA President Stanley Rous which was subsequently implemented by Football League secretary Alan Hardaker. And not everyone was down with the plan for another domestic cup contest, which led to Football League President Joe Richards paying for the original trophy himself, getting his name permanently engraved on it in the process. After Alan Hardaker’s role in making the League Cup a reality, the Man of the Match in every final now is awarded the ‘Alan Hardaker trophy’ – John Terry and Ben Foster are the only two footballers to win it twice.
The EFL Cup trophy is a three-handled, eloquently-designed urn and has been used forever, apart from the nine years where Milk Marketing Board and Littlewoods had stints as sponsors and wanted their own designs from 1981 to 1990. Modern fans’ nickname ‘Milk Cup’ to gloat its un-relativity comes from when MMB sponsored a then-worthless tournament in the first half of the 1980s. Other sponsors which you’ll remember are, of course, Carling from 2003 to 2012 which was so popular that people still refer the competition as the Carling Cup, and Capital One from 2012 to 2016.
The famous Aston Villa were inaugural champions in 1961, beating Rotherham United 3-2 over two legs in the final, which became just one match in 1966, while the First and Second Rounds were also two-legged until 2001. Even though two-legged finals ended in ’66 there were still replays in the event of a tie until 1998 when extra-time and penalties were added, with replays hosted at iconic grounds such as Maine Road, Old Trafford, Hillsborough and Villa Park.
Like the FA Cup, the Millennium Stadium was utilised for cup finals from 2001 to 2007 during the construction of New Wembley after being hosted by the Empire Stadium since 1967, where the first final at HA9 ended with Queens Park Rangers getting the better of West Bromwich Albion. As the years rolled on, the Football League’s links with the FA and UEFA strengthened until the point where winners started to be place in Europa League qualifying.
Unlikely European representatives have come out of the EFL Cup since the rule was put in place. Obviously, Swansea City after disposing of Bradford City in 2013, and they got knocked out by respectable opposition in the form of Napoli. And, incredibly, Birmingham City after their shock win against Arsenal in 2011 prior to Premier League relegation but the Championship club exited at the group stage – finishing third behind Club Brugge and Sporting Braga. Norwich City, Oxford United, Luton Town and Nottingham Forest were all unlucky enough to win the League Cup during the aftermath of Liverpool’s involvement in the Heysel disaster in Belgium led to English clubs being banned from European competition for five years back in 1985.
Liverpool have enjoyed the most League Cup success, winning the trophy eight times including four seasons in a row from 1980 to 1984 but Manchester United, Aston Villa and Chelsea all closely follow behind with five. The Anfield-club also hold the record for the most appearances in finals, 12, while Reds legend Ian Rush won it five times, the most of any other player. Rush is also tied with Geoff Hurst for the all-time League Cup golden boot after bagging 49 goals during his time in the competition.