Is the Carling Cup Growing in Reputation?

Manchester City will play Tottenham Hotspur. Incidentally, I read one of the articles from a Spurs fan on very recently and it made me laugh in some respects. Undoubtedly superbly written, how hard it must be ‘to have not won a trophy since 1999’, not to mention having Arsenal as your biggest rivals as opposed to the shadow of Manchester United.

Anyhow, I digress. This is one of the ties for the Quarter-Final of the Carling Cup in December, and it’s a tie that surely captures the imagination of the public. Yet would it carry more weight as an FA Cup Quarter-Final? The obvious answer is yes. However, it also got this author thinking about the differences between the two, what started as a thought about two great FA Cup games led into a myriad of pondering about the standing, in the modern game, of the Carling Cup.

As for the former, growing up watching that prestigious trophy, viewers have had endless replays capturing the magic of the competition: more specifically Ricky Villa’s enchanting, sublime solo effort ensuring Spurs won the 1981 trophy, which never diminished in its ability to hurt this particular writer. One in stark contrast, though, was the epic 4-3 comeback win for City at White Hart Lane in early 2004. The game had everything, wonderful goals from the likes of Christian Ziege and Ledley King, Joey Barton sent off DURING the interval and 4 subsequent goals for the Manchester club secured a passage to Old Trafford in the next round.

They are a modicum of the memories relevant to me; no doubt you will have your own. The trophy has a highly esteemed reputation globally; many players from other countries playing in the Premiership often talk of watching it as a child and how they have fulfilled a dream in their life by reaching the final. Wikipedia has a section allocated to famous scalps in the competition’s history, reinforcing its romanticism.

The Carling Cup, meanwhile, has been the subject of some debate over the past decade or so, the victim of criticism from the sceptics out there that the bigger clubs haven’t taken it seriously. The competition has been named after its various sponsors since 1982, meaning we have had to become accustomed to 6 changes, and it has suffered slightly from the perception that Premiership managers rest players who are likely to tire over the course of a campaign. With all due respect to Coventry City, for their 2-0 win at Old Trafford earlier in the season they were opposed by the following;

Man Utd: Kuszczak, Bardsley (Brown 45), Evans (Carrick 56), Pique, Simpson, Nani, Martin (Campbell 45), O’Shea, Eagles, Dong, Anderson.
Subs Not Used: Heaton, Eckersley.

Ask a Coventry fan and they will tell you it still contained 6 full internationals, though with all due respect, it still lacks several of the big threats who play week in week out who would surely have been more of a threat to Coventry’s passage to the next round. While United hadn’t won a trophy since 2003, they still took it a serious enough competition to win in 2006. Is it a question of priorities? Now that the Reds have a Premiership in the bag again, that they are putting the emphasis on the retaining their title, capturing the FA Cup once more and Champions League for the first time since that night in Barcelona, rendering the Carling Cup subordinate? Maybe, the value of winning the Champions League is overwhelming compared to a defeat to Coventry. Furthermore, United went out at the Quarter-Final stage in their famous treble-winning season to Spurs, requiring extra-time to beat Bury in the 3rd round with their weakened team.

Is that the issue cut and dried? Perhaps, but then again Sir Alex Ferguson never likes losing does he? Maybe he was trying to replicate the strength displayed last term in this competition, with a largely second string, by Arsenal. After all, many of the team in that match at Old Trafford have been used at some point or another in the Premiership. Arsenal, while not winning the trophy in quite some time, did balance a magnificent Premiership season with reaching the Semi-Final in 2004, maybe restoring some credibility to the black sheep of the competition family.

Consider that the last 12 FA Cups have been won by the Premiership’s elitists; Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea – though Millwall, Southampton and West Ham United have reached the final in recent years — and that teams such as Middlesbrough, Leicester City (2), Blackburn and indeed, Tottenham Hotspur, have actually won the Carling Cup in the last decade, and it’s not hard to see why such perceptions about the cup exist. In short, it’s seen as a more attainable trophy for teams outside the big four.

However, there have been some shreds of evidence to refute these assertions in recent years. Man United’s success last year aside, Chelsea have won 2 of the last 3, most recently defeating Arsenal’s band of hugely promising youngsters — who, incidentally, hammered Liverpool 6-3 at Anfield – and surely nobody could argue that Jose Mourinho wasn’t chasing success in all competitions. Rafa Benitez reached the final in February 2005 with his heroes of Istanbul, too. Maybe it wasn’t such a strain.

With Mourinho now departed, it makes one wonder whether specific managers prioritise or not. Consider Avram Grant’s team at Hull City, when Chelsea romped to a 4-0 win;

Chelsea: Cudicini, Belletti, Ben-Haim, Terry, Ashley Cole (Bridge 65), Wright-Phillips (Joe Cole 49), Essien (Makelele 73), Sidwell, Kalou, Sinclair, Pizarro.
Subs Not Used: Hilario, Shevchenko.

One thing is for certain: while Manchester United crashed out in the earlier rounds, the cup will be won by a Premiership club. Whether or not that is one of the elite; Liverpool, Arsenal or Chelsea, or one of the smaller institutions, namely; Man City, Spurs, West Ham, Everton or Blackburn, only time will tell.

However, even if the Carling Cup is won for the next 5 times by teams that have won the FA Cup for the last 12, the honour and tradition of it will always be seemingly in the shadow.

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