With the October international break now upon us, two matches have been played in the European club competitions’ group stages and the domestic league campaigns are now several matches down, with intriguing storylines now beginning to develop. In England specifically, it is around this time of the year where debate seems to be continuously ongoing about a competition which has now been part of the footballing landscape for over 60 years, the EFL Cup (League Cup).
The inaugural EFL Cup occurred in the 1960/61 season where now five-time winners Aston Villa defeated Rotherham United by an aggregate score of 3-2 after a two-legged final, which eventually became a one-legged affair held at the neutral venue of Wembley Stadium from 1966/67 onwards. The competition was reportedly the brainchild of former secretary of the English Football League (EFL) Alan Hardaker, whom the player-of-the-match trophy in every edition’s final is named after.
Prior to the competition’s formation, Hardaker had presented its introduction as part of a “Pattern for Football” document, which also included reforming the EFL to comprise five divisions of 20 teams each. Whilst the EFL clubs rejected the proposal for five divisions of 20 teams, they did agree to create the League Cup and thus the new competition was born.
Despite producing 23 different winners in its so far 61 completed editions, many now ponder in ever greater detail what the competition’s future now holds. Come the 2024/25 European football season, when the EFL Cup’s 65th edition will take place, a ground-breaking development will occur in European club competitions. 2024/25 will be the first season where the UEFA Champions League will as already approved by UEFA’s Executive Committee evolve into a 36 team competition, up from its current 32 team group stage.
Rather than the eight groups present in the competition at present, the 36 participants will all be in one big league, will play 10 different teams in the format taking into account UEFA co-efficient rankings with the top eight ranked sides after the ten matches qualifying for the Round of Sixteen. Sixteen teams ranked 9th to 24th post-group stage enter into an extra qualification round to make up the remaining eight spaces for the Round of Sixteen.
With this extended format for the Champions League seeing an increase of matches for participating clubs, growing question marks are beginning to circle about the future of the EFL Cup come 2024/25. Ironic, considering reports that one of Hardaker’s reasonings for the EFL Cup’s formation, in addition to the recent installation of floodlights at many EFL grounds by 1960 so that midweek matches could be played was to counter the then-recent formation and growing-popularity of the European Cup.
Therefore, with debate about the EFL Cup’s future now beginning once again to rise, here are four options for the competition’s future going forward.
Option One: Removal
The first option is arguably the cruellest option for the competition’s future but one which is growing in stature across football circles in England. It involves removing the EFL Cup from the fixture calendar and just having one solitary knockout cup competition in the FA Cup, the oldest knockout cup competition in association football.
Supporters who argue in favour to remove the EFL Cup bring up a variety of points. Most prominent of all is the debate about the competition’s attendance in its early rounds. The 2021/22 EFL Cup’s second round like every season is the first time that Premier League clubs enter the competition. Despite the big boys of English football entering the competition, attendances in the second round fell short of those experienced for weekend Premier League matches.
In their opening Premier League match of the new season at their new Brentford Community Stadium home, Brentford FC achieved a stadium attendance record of 16,479 spectators for their 2-0 home victory against Arsenal FC. By contrast, for the visit of 4th tier Forest Green Rovers for the EFL Cup second round, only 12,137 spectators went through the turnstiles.
In Watford FC’s opening match of the 2021/22 Premier League campaign, 20,051 spectators attended the 3-2 home victory at Vicarage Road against Aston Villa. Just 9,011 spectators attended the same venue for Watford’s 1-0 victory against fellow Premier League outfit Crystal Palace.
Finally, 50,673 spectators attended Newcastle United’s 4-2 home loss against West Ham United in the Magpies opening match of the 2021/22 campaign. Nearly 20,000 less turned out at St James’s Park for Newcastle’s home penalty loss against Burnley FC after a goal-less Second Round tie.
In addition to a drop-off in attendances, another cited reason to remove the EFL Cup’s is an increasing lopsided nature to the tournament, fuelling further criticism of an ever-increasing divide between the 72 clubs in the EFL’s three divisions and the 20 Premier League clubs. In the 2021/22 EFL Cup second round, there were nine ties where EFL clubs faced Premier League opposition. David vs Goliath ties, what cup tie nights under the lights are all about, the magic of cup competitions.
All nine ties resulted in victories for Premier League clubs. Not one went to penalties after 90 minutes, only Huddersfield in their home loss to Everton lost by a margin of fewer than two goals. In terms of combined score aggregate, the nine Premier League clubs won with 36 goals scored and just two conceded. Some of the score-lines were emphatically one-sided too, Aston Villa defeated fourth-tier Barrow FC 6-0 away with the largest margin being an 8-0 victory by Southampton away at fourth-tier Newport County.
Yet, despite these ever-stronger pro arguments for removal, there are some strong cons to counter-argue. Firstly, owing to their huge wealth at their disposal due to the sheer size of the competition’s broadcast deals, each of the 20 Premier League clubs, in theory at least, should be able to maintain good-sized squads with sufficient depth to handle all fixtures in a club season.
Removing the EFL Cup would take away a competition where squad fringe players must take any opportunity possible to stake a claim for more regular football to play. It is a dilemma now facing Manchester United and their manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. After their 1-0 elimination at home in the Third Round of this season’s competition against West Ham United, the Red Devils will now have fewer opportunities to field their fringe players.
Then there is the oft-uttered phrase on the importance of winning trophies. Not only does an honour prevent a trophy-less season, but even winning an EFL Cup can also act as a springboard towards a glory era for a club. Come the time of the 2005/06 EFL Cup final against Wigan Athletic, the great Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United were into their third season without a trophy, the Scotsman’s longest run since his early years in charge of the Red Devils in the late 1980’s.
A 4-0 victory in the final secured only the then 2nd League Cup won by Ferguson in his spell in charge, however, it proved a springboard to a renaissance for the red half of Manchester. It led to four Premier League titles, two further EFL Cups in 2008/09 and 2009/10 and a Champions League victory for Manchester United in the five seasons between 2006/07 and 2010/11.
Removing the EFL Cup, one of English football’s two domestic knockout competitions would also remove an avenue for a smaller club to win silverware. With the ever-increasing dominance of European football’s elite clubs over the last decade leading to the coining of the phrase “super-clubs”, league championships are becoming more out-of-reach for many.
A trophy like the EFL Cup therefore, with the variables that a knockout competition can provide such as timing and luck of the draw gives more chance to an unexpected triumph. Something that can provide memories that last a lifetime. Ask any fans of Swansea City on their EFL Cup 2012/13 final triumph against 4th tier Bradford City, whose own fans experienced just as memorable an occasion by reaching a final against all the odds imaginable.
On this day in 2013, Swansea City thrashed Bradford 5-0 to win the League Cup 🏆 pic.twitter.com/8ap1nSg7dD
— BBC Sport Wales (@BBCSportWales) February 24, 2021
However, the most difficult obstacle towards the removal of the EFL Cup might come from a financial aspect, which understandably has much more impact on EFL clubs than those in the Premier League. As highlighted by The Athletic in a recent piece on the League Cup’s fight to stay relevant in the modern era, television rights for the competition are sold collectively alongside Championship, League One, League Two and Papa John’s Trophy (EFL Trophy) fixtures. A combined EFL TV deal for all its 72 member clubs.
Starting from the 2018/19 season, this combined EFL TV deal was a five-season agreement valued at GBP 595 million. As the aforementioned The Athletic piece stipulates, future removal of the EFL Cup could affect the valuation of the whole EFL TV deal. A future scenario which whilst very harmful to EFL clubs at the best of times could prove devastating in the current Covid-climate.
A time when EFL clubs were unable to play matches in front of crowds for nearly 18 months and didn’t have the safeguard of the gigantic TV revenue all 20 Premier League clubs had at their disposal.
Option 2: Retain
The second option is to simply do nothing, to maintain the EFL Cup in its current format and structure. The pros of retaining the competition start with a reference back to the aforementioned desire to not take away a chance for clubs to win silverware.
Between 1998 and 2003, the EFL Cup, thanks to its sponsorship by brewery Worthington’s, took on the name “Worthington’s Cup”. However, it was a time when many Premier League, for the very first time sides were criticised for disrespecting the competition by fielding weaker sides in it. The crude term “Worthless Cup” was a phrase I vividly remember circulating to describe the competition.
Bare in mind also that the late 1990’s/early 2000’s also saw the UEFA Champions League expand to include more than one teams from each country. With 2nd, 3rd and by 2002, even 4th placed teams from England qualifying for the following season’s Champions League, the competition began to lose any past prestige it had.
However, it was arguably the aforementioned 2005/06 victory in the competition by Manchester United and the revival in their fortunes which suddenly saw a changing of attitude to the competition by many clubs. Suddenly, even if still lacking the prestige of the Premier League or Champions League, the EFL Cup became a competition worth fighting for once again.
After failing to defend their Premier League title in 2006/07, Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea won both the EFL and FA Cups that campaign to prevent a trophyless campaign. Likewise, Tottenham Hotspur, despite enduring an unsuccessful spell under Spanish manager Juande Ramos did manage to win the EFL Cup in 2007/08. It was just Spurs’ second trophy since 1991, the other of those also being the EFL Cup, which they also won in 1998/99.
With the massive financial increase in the pockets of Premier League clubs thanks to the joint Sky Sports and BT Sport broadcast deals, clubs now have the capacity in England to maintain large playing squads. The giant clubs in particular are now able to field competitive teams in the EFL Cup in every round.
One only has to look at the competition’s winners since 2010, only two sides outside of English football’s so-called “Big Six”, Birmingham City in 2011 and the aforementioned Swansea City in 2013 have emerged victorious. Manchester City have in particular enjoyed this competition, winning it six out of the last eight editions (2014, 2016, 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021).
Nearly extinct are the days when a team comprising of either solely or mainly youngsters take to the field. When Manchester United exited the competition in the 1999/00 Third Round in a 3-0 loss against Aston Villa, the only senior players in their squad were three starters, goalkeeper Mark Bosnich, striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and fringe midfield player Jordi Cruyff. The other 13 players in the matchday squad, eight starters and five bench players were all youngsters.
Another argument in favour of retention in its current format includes that the EFL Cup Quarter Finals and the two-legged Semi-Finals act as a nice midweek filler in late December and throughout January when the European club competitions take a winter hiatus. Equally, removing the EFL Cup would also take away chances for youngsters to get vital playing time in the competition and thus potentially deprive them of much-needed game time to help their development.
Back in the 2003/04 edition of the competition as an example, Arsenal reached the semi-finals before losing to eventual winners Middlesbrough. It was in this season’s edition of the competition that in their Third Round victory over Rotherham United, a certain Cesc Fabregas made his debut for the Gunners aged just 16 years old.
Even if not as well-publicised and famous as the FA Cup for throwing up David vs Goliath clashes, there are still noteworthy midweek cup-ties that do occur in the EFL Cup. AFC Wimbledon’s recent Third Round clash away at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium in this year’s edition of the competition is testament to that. In addition, is an upcoming Fourth Round tie between two North-West sides. The Championship’s Preston North End taking on Premier League giants Liverpool at the second-tier side’s historic Deepdale Stadium.
Finally, with top-flight football both domestically and in Europe becoming very expensive for fans in recent times, many sides do slash admission prices for EFL Cup matches. This can give those who go to games in the competition’s early rounds a more affordable evening out at the football than what they would get at the weekend. For some, it can be their very first match, an experience that gets them hooked on their team of choice for life.
Option 3: Reform (Remove the Clubs Playing in European Competitions That Particular Season)
If removing the EFL Cup is not an option but nor is keeping the competition in its current format, then reform could prove a viable option for the EFL Cup. There are two often-uttered reform manifestos for the competition amongst English supporters.
The first of these options would be to simply remove the 7 clubs representing England in European club competition that season and hold the competition with just the other 13 Premier League clubs and the 72 Football League clubs.
One argument in favour of this proposed format is that by removing the clubs who qualify for European competition, who most often are comprised of the Premier League’s so-called “Big Six” is that it would give lesser clubs a better opportunity to win a trophy.
A new winner of the competition would be guaranteed every season under this format given the winners would enter the following season’s UEFA Europa Conference League as reward for their endeavours. They therefore would not be eligible to participate in the following season’s EFL Cup.
Another argument to support this proposed reform is that for the EFL clubs, especially those in both League One and League Two, by keeping the 13 Premier League sides in the competition, there will still be the possibility for David vs Goliath cup ties in the early rounds.
This season for example, under this remove the clubs playing in European competitions reform, Arsenal would have entered the EFL Cup given they only finished 8th in the 2020/21 Premier League. Therefore, the aforementioned Arsenal vs AFC Wimbledon tie could still have potentially taken place.
As aforementioned, removal of the EFL Cup in its entirety is difficult due to the possibility of a huge drop in the valuation of the EFL TV deal which includes rights to the EFL Cup. By keeping the 13 Premier League sides in the competition who did not qualify for Europe, there is still big draws for the TV broadcasters when choosing live matches each round.
Arsenal, Everton, Leeds United, Aston Villa and Newcastle United all make frequent appearances in live televised Premier League matches in England. Even if the teams qualifying for Europe every season would change in the Premier League, there would be big clubs to ensure that the combined EFL TV deal could remain high to safeguard the EFL clubs. Arsenal may have missed out on European qualification this season, next season, however, it could be Tottenham or Leicester City instead or maybe both.
Finally, removing the Premier League clubs who qualify for Europe could stimulate an extra desire amongst certain clubs to do well in the EFL Cup, something that may not exist currently. Manchester City and their dominant stranglehold on the EFL Cup would be taken out of the competition and may not return to it for several years given their firm entrenchment in the Premier League’s top four.
Removing them, in addition to the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea from the competition opens the door for an Aston Villa or an Everton to really make a run at winning the EFL Cup. In the case of both clubs, a long-awaited honour to put in their trophy cabinet. Their chances of winning the competition increase substantially and we therefore may see stronger starting line-ups and less squad rotation than what we are currently seeing.
Cons of this proposed format are very easy to pinpoint, however. Firstly, seven teams under this proposal are being forcibly removed from a cup competition. It must be stressed that certain clubs may support this enforced removal from a competition due to concerns about fixture congestion or the fact that the competition is low on their priority lists. However, certain other clubs may not be happy about their removal from a competition which would be purely down to qualifying for Europe.
In addition, clubs that often qualify for continental competition regularly and therefore frequently are excluded from the EFL Cup under these reforms would argue that they have sufficient depth of squad to be able to juggle both domestic and European fixtures.
With such squad depth, one less competition for clubs that frequently qualify for Europe is one less opportunity for them to blood young players or squad players who may struggle to get regular minutes in the other competitions.
One must also consider supporters here too. Several amongst fanbases of the large English clubs who frequently qualify for Europe do care about the EFL Cup and wish to participate in it. Equally, as aforementioned, the EFL Cup does with cheaper matchday tickets provide better opportunities for those who struggle to get league tickets or those on long season-ticket waitlists to attend matches. Not to mention the opportunity to go to Wembley Stadium for a cup final, something no longer available to them under this proposed reform.
Removing the seven clubs who qualify for European competition also has the danger of cheapening the trophy, leading to possible accusations that eventual future winners are not true victors due to their lack of playing the big European-qualified clubs. From a meritocracy point of view too, would the EFL Cup winners under this proposed reform really merit qualification for European competition the following season given they never had to defeat a big European-qualified club?
Finally, there is no guarantee that many of the other 13 Premier League clubs would take the EFL Cup seriously even with the big European-qualified clubs no longer an obstacle in their pathway to victory. Whilst fans of said clubs would love a run in a cup competition over a lower-mid table Premier League finish, the ownership of said clubs may think differently due to much larger extra prize money available for just finishing one or two positions higher in the Premier League.
The riches of the Premier League with a midtable finish could still be forced to take precedence over an EFL Cup run alongside a Premier League relegation scrap. There is also no guarantee that the overall EFL TV deal which includes the EFL Cup would not drop substantially without the participation of the big European-qualified clubs, given many are frequently on TV each week in the Premier League.
Option 4: Reform (Remove All Premier League Clubs & Merge EFL Trophy into the EFL Cup)
The second reform option for the EFL Cup, often cited by fans, would be to remove all Premier League clubs from it and just have a 72 team competition comprised of just EFL clubs. In addition, the EFL Trophy (currently known as the Papa John’s Trophy for sponsorship reasons) would be amalgamated into the EFL Cup. This would leave EFL clubs with just two domestic cup competitions in the EFL Cup and FA Cup.
Despite the proposed removal of the seven European-qualified clubs in the aforementioned alternative reform, the financial gap between Premier League clubs and EFL clubs still remains enormous owing to the massive difference between the respective TV broadcast deals. After all, one only has to look back at the aforementioned 2021/22 EFL Cup Second Round where the nine Premier League vs EFL ties saw huge margins of victory for the top-flight clubs.
Because of this, the argument to remove all Premier League clubs from the competition and just run it with Championship, League One and League Two clubs has surfaced. England has one of, if not the strongest footballing pyramid in world football. Attendances in addition to overall financial spending strength in English football’s third and fourth tiers dwarf anything overseas.
As an example, Sunderland in their opening five home matches of the 2021/22 third tier EFL League One season are averaging 30,437 spectators. Ipswich Town, in the same division are averaging just short of 20,000 spectators from their opening five home matches. Bradford City in the fourth tier EFL League Two are averaging 15,777 spectators from their opening four home matches.
Bradford City had a higher attendance in League Two than:
– Premier League Burnley and Brentford
– 9 of the 12 home Championship sides
– 11 of the 12 home League One sides
– Every other home League Two side
— BetVictor (@BetVictor) August 16, 2021
Throw these aforementioned figures on top of healthy average gates in the second-tier Championship and there would be no danger in finals in the EFL Cup under these zero Premier League side reforms of Wembley failing to attract a huge crowd for its final. One could easily see possible finals such as Sheffield United vs Sheffield Wednesday, Cardiff vs Swansea City or Nottingham Forest vs Derby County easily selling out Wembley.
The other interesting dynamic of this proposed reform would be the removal of the EFL (Papa John’s) Trophy and its amalgamation into the EFL Cup. Founded in time for the 1983-84 season and until the 2016/17 season comprised of just League One and League Two clubs, the EFL Trophy has always been firmly seen as the least important of the three domestic cup competitions for EFL clubs.
The competition’s early rounds always struggled for attendances, much like the EFL Cup in its current guise, however, as it went on, like the EFL Cup, attendances and interest grew and finals of the competition were widely appreciated as giving fans a day out at Wembley. However, from the 2016/17 campaign, Premier League and some Championship clubs (basically all clubs with Category One status academies) began to enter their Under 23 reserve sides into the competition.
The reaction from EFL club fans to this EFL Trophy reform was hugely negative and widely criticised as a cynical attempt to eventually force “B” or “reserve” sides into the English Football League pyramid in future seasons. As a result, EFL Trophy attendances in the competition’s early rounds since the introduction of the Under 23 sides have plummeted with many fans boycotting thanks to a strong publicised campaign “#BTeamBoycott”.
With the EFL Trophy now deeply unpopular amongst many League One and League Two supporters, many would not mourn the competition’s disappearance should it be amalgamated into the EFL Cup. In fact, one criticism held against the EFL Trophy prior to the introduction of the Under 23 teams was the lack of Championship clubs in an EFL-club only competition.
An EFL Cup comprised of just clubs from the EFL’s three divisions would give certain spectators who called for Championship clubs in the EFL Trophy in its pre-Under 23 teams days something they long-yearned for.
Finally, amalgamating the EFL Trophy into the EFL Cup then lightens the load on schedules for League One and League Two clubs. There would be just two domestic cup competitions rather than three to focus on. Ideal when Football League clubs have a 46 game league season to contend with as opposed to the just 38 league games faced by the 20 Premier League clubs.
However, there are also many noteworthy cons to this second proposed reform of removing all Premier League clubs from the EFL Cup. The first sees us refer back to the collective EFL TV deal which includes the EFL Cup. If there was a danger of a substantial drop to the deal’s future valuation without the big European-qualified clubs playing in the EFL Cup, there is an even larger danger of a substantial drop in valuation without any Premier League teams in it at all.
The second con of this proposal also brings us back to another issue that would be brought up by the first reform option. This concerns the previously mentioned validity of offering a European qualification spot to the competition’s winners when there are no big European-qualified teams participating. There would be even larger validity question marks in offering the EFL Cup winners a Europa Conference League spot if there were no Premier League sides competing at all.
In the same way as an EFL Cup without the European-qualified clubs in the other reform option would deliberately forcing those clubs to miss a competition they may not want to miss; forcing the other Premier League clubs to miss a competition under this alternative reform would amplify this issue even further.
In addition, no participation in the EFL Cup for these Premier League clubs without European football could see these teams play just 19 home matches in a league season at home in front of their supporters conditional upon an Third Round FA Cup exit away from home.
Hardly something supporters would be enthusiastic about. Not to mention a further amplification of the previous issue brought up around depriving supporters who sometimes struggle to afford or those on long waiting lists for season tickets from an easier & cheaper route to getting matchday tickets via the EFL Cup.
Finally though, one issue that has become a noteworthy talking point in the EFL Cup lately has been a recent lack of enthusiasm for it even amongst certain Football League clubs. When facing Premier League giants Arsenal at The Hawthorns in their Second Round EFL Cup tie earlier this campaign, The Baggies fielded a young & inexperienced side who were brushed aside at home 6-0 by a strong Arsenal side. Post-match, West Brom manager Valerien Ismael stated “The final thing is to thank the fans. They understood our priority this season is clearly the Championship.”
Like the aforementioned point about non-European-qualified Premier League clubs still preferring to prioritise a higher league finish over a cup-run and a possible relegation fight, clubs like West Brom, indebted to Premier League parachute payments and seeking a quick Premier League return will understandably prioritise promotion over a cup-run.
Situations like this may lead to an EFL Cup without any Premier League sides in it that should in theory enhance the potential of a smaller club winning a trophy yet still see many EFL clubs treat the competition as an irrelevance and field substantially weaker sides.
Going back briefly to the aforementioned notice of the Champions League reforms that kick in from 2024/25 and beyond and these reforms’ impact on the EFL Cup, it is my personal preference for the Champions League to avoid changing to the proposed 36 team league format. The current 32 teams divided into eight groups of four teams group stage works perfectly well, is easy to understand and if it’s not broken, why try and fix it.
Something that may need fixing though is the EFL Cup and its current format which is now being questioned and debated like never before. As the aforementioned four ideas for the competition’s future show, every proposal one puts forward for the competition’s future has its potential benefits, but likewise, potential pitfalls.
One thing for sure is that a solution will be needed quickly with the new Champions League reforms set for 2024/25 on the horizon. The debate on the format and possible future for the EFL Cup has only just begun.
By: Richard David Pike / @RichDPike
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Adam Davy – PA Images