Just when you think you’ve seen it all in football, the sport continues to show that it has the capacity to surprise. In England’s Capital One Cup, the latest reincarnation of the League Cup, there has been no shortage of surprises throughout this season’s competition with a fair amount of controversy thrown in for good measure. After being derided as a “Mickey Mouse” cup over the years, one can argue that, in terms of excitement, the League Cup is actually far more interesting than its big brother, the FA Cup. The 2012-13 League Cup final will see Premier League side Swansea City, set to play in their first major English final (the Swans have ten Welsh Cup triumphs to their name), against fourth-tier side Bradford City who have already disposed of three Premier League clubs so far in this competition.
Swansea City, who hail from Wales’ second city, will become the second Welsh team to reach the League Cup final in twelve months after their arch rivals Cardiff City were beaten by Liverpool in the 2011-12 edition. If Swansea can live up to their billing as heavy favourites then they will create history for Welsh football by becoming the first team from the country to win this particular competition (Cardiff won the FA Cup in 1927). The achievement of reaching the final for Swansea City is remarkable given that the club were only promoted to the Premier League just two years ago and under the management of Danish footballing legend Michael Laudrup have continued and expanded on a fine passing game played under his predecessors Roberto Martinez, Paulo Sousa and Brendan Rodgers. The Swans have knocked out of the competition, amongst others, defending cup holders Liverpool and European champions Chelsea. The latter game was laden with controversy after Chelsea’s Eden Hazard kicked out at a ballboy during the semi-final, second leg when trying to retrieve the ball in the last stages of the game, which was goalless on the night but stood 2-0 in Swansea’s favour. The ballboy, revealed as 17 year old Charlie Morgan, fell on top of the ball after a tussle with Hazard who subsequently aimed a kick whilst Morgan was lying on the ground. Hazard saw red, both in terms of anger and in the form of the card shown from the referee’s pocket, but went on to speak to Morgan after the game with both parties apologizing to each other in the aftermath. The incident almost overshadowed the fact that Swansea had successfully defended the 2-0 lead gained from the first leg at Stamford Bridge and will go to Wembley hoping to win their first piece of major silverware since their 2010-11 Championship Play-Off victory which guaranteed their promotion to the Premier League.
Bradford City, a Premier League club as recently as 2001, have suffered a downward turn in fortunes since losing their top flight status. As well as three further relegations, the Valley Parade club were placed into administration in 2002. Nevertheless the spirit of the club has prevailed in tough times and the League Two table currently sees Bradford lying in tenth place, five points behind Northampton Town in the automatic promotion spots and just two points outside the Play-Off places. Their cup form has been nothing short of extraordinary, knocking out three Premier League clubs along the way. Penalties were needed in both the fourth round match against Wigan and the quarter-final tie against Arsenal before Bradford put the challenge of Aston Villa to bed by defeating the Birmingham based side 4-3 on aggregate. Should the Bantams win the trophy against Swansea on February 24th it will go down as one of the most remarkable cup triumphs of all time and would give the West Yorkshire club their first major cup win since they saw off Newcastle United in the 1911 FA Cup final.
Anybody who bemoans the fact that none of the giants of the English game have reached the League Cup final really ought to remind themselves of what makes cup football so exciting in the first place. The chance for David to get one over Goliath is an essential part of knockout football. The fact that two clubs such as Swansea and Bradford are in the final should be celebrated as it gives other clubs the opportunity to dream that it could be them one day, especially in an age where money seems to be deemed more important than the silverware. Try telling that to two clubs whose trophy cabinets aren’t quite as full as they are at Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea, to name but three giants of the game.
In this respect the League Cup tends to be more open than its counterpart, the FA Cup. Apart from Portsmouth FC’s triumph in 2008 and Manchester City’s in 2011, the FA Cup has been won by one of just four teams – Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal – every year since 1996. In the same period the likes of Leicester City (twice), Aston Villa, Tottenham Hotspur, Blackburn Rovers and Middlesbrough have all lifted the trophy as well as the traditional heavyweights of United, Liverpool and Chelsea (Arsenal, surprisingly, haven’t won the League Cup since 1993). Perhaps the fact that the League Cup concludes early in the new year provides motivation for many teams to win that first piece of silverware in any given season. One thing for certain is that the League Cup deserves far more respect than it currently gets in the English game. Swansea and Bradford will no doubt provide one last highlight this season for a competition which is more interesting than its detractors realize.