Last weekend, two cup competitions were taking place. One kicked off with 145 goals in just 32 games. The other was a youth tournament coming to a conclusion in Northern Ireland and saw Manchester United’s U-16s humbled in the final by Qatari side Aspire.
The first, of course, was the DFB Pokal. Won comprehensively in May by Schalke, 64 teams began the road to Berlin. The second was the Milk Cup. Not to be confused with the English League Cup sponsored by the Milk Marketing Board in the 1980s, that is the subject of this piece. This much maligned cup, renamed six times since 1982, is in desperate need of an overhaul.
Crowds are dwindling – despite the competition being split into north and south, only two of the 35 first round ties last year passed the 10,000 mark (Leeds and Southampton). Clubs, particularly in the Premier League, are happy to prioritise the league over the now called ‘Carling Cup’. The proverbial European carrot at the end of the stick appears not tantalising enough for many to take it seriously. The exception being Birmingham, who paid for Europa League football with their Premier League lives.
Next midweek, the 51st season of the English League Cup will kick off in earnest. Ok, Crawley have already seen off AFC Wimbledon in the prelims BUT I mean the first round proper. In the days to follow, numerous media sources – tenner says that the Beeb does a half-baked job of criticising crowds – will likely slate the competition. [Note: the attendance figures will be up on last year thanks to West Ham and a Nottingham derby]. Not one will offer up a well thought out plan to ‘save the cup.’
So here’s my attempt…
The following, rather predictably of course – why else would a post on an English cup competition appear on a German football site – will outline how the DFB Pokal could be a model on which the Football League could base a potential revamp.
Why? Well my main justification is attendances. You could argue that any cup is incredibly exciting but if a tree falls in the woods…. As aforementioned, only two of the Carling Cup first round ties passed 10,000. In Germany, 18 of the 32 ties broke that mark, and even that figure is somewhat constrained by ground capacity.
First a bit of groundwork. Who plays in the DFB Pokal is determined by last season’s Bundesliga and 2.Bundesliga constitution, the performance of teams in the 3.Liga and the winners of 21 regional cups. Immediately there’s a huge difference – not all teams are fully-pro. Some are amateur.
Anyway, all these cup winners, the four best placed 3.Liga teams and the four lowest placed 2.Bundesliga teams are drawn at home. The remaining teams – there are no byes for European outfits – are drawn away, meaning there’s a good chance each amateur and semi-pro club will get a big windfall. For example, VfB Oldenburg of the fifth tier Niedersachsenliga hosted Bundesliga ever-presents Hamburger SV and lost only to a late Mladen Petric goal. Elsewhere, SVN Zweibrücken had to move their tie against Mainz to bring in 12000 fans that saw their team lose narrowly in extra-time.
So there’s number one – have lower ranked teams hosting the higher ranked teams.
Number two: No automatic byes based on league position. But 92 doesn’t halve down to 1? Fine, then pick randomly out of a hat.
If you randomly select 36 teams to go through, you then have 56 remaining clubs, of which the lower ranked 28 host the remaining higher ranked 28. The winners then join the lucky 36 and the process is repeated with 64 teams. From round three, the seeds are abandoned and it becomes a random draw. Some people oppose this motion by claiming that the organisers try to ‘create magic’ and that cups should be completely unsystematic. And to a certain extent I agree. But to that, I’d argue I’d rather have magic created than none at all. Who doesn’t love an upset? And what chance has a club like Barnet got of negotiating two rounds and then somehow drawing Liverpool or Arsenal at home out of the hat?
Talking of upsets, there were a number last weekend in the Pokal. Dynamo Dresden, newly promoted to the second tier, came from three goals down to beat Bayer Leverkusen. Notably (ok, maybe not) all of Dresden’s goals were scored after Michael Ballack entered play… Red Bull won the battle with Volkswagen in Leipzig as Daniel Frahn’s stunning hat-trick left Felix Magath rather angry at his new look Wolfsburg side. The forgotten team of Munich, SpVgg Unterhaching dumped out Freiburg and Heidenheim came from behind to embarrass Werder Bremen, who apparently still can’t defend.
Back to the point…. The main problem with my theory is that Germany only has one cup competition. A fact, it could be argued, that has helped the nationalmannschaft in recent seasons as English players continue to embarrassingly blame fatigue on a biannual basis. With the FA Cup untouchable, and rightly so, the League Cup has a lot to contend with. It is in essence regarded as a ‘reserve’ competition to the ‘Holy Grail’ of English football.
Something has to be done. The League Cup holds some of my finest footballing memories – infact, nearly all of them. I don’t want to lose it.
The second round draw for the DFB Pokal takes place this Saturday (6th August). A Dynamo Dresden fan was so excited about his team making the draw, he managed to do this….