Part of the problem would appear to be that the last six competitions have been won by sides who subsequently qualified for continental competition through their League placing. The night when Leicester City gave Atletico Madrid an almighty scare on their own turf seems a lifetime ago, but without the League Cup and the incentive to take it seriously, it would never have happened. Surely seeing someone other than the predictable list of seven or eight English sides doing battle in Europe would give the competition a real shot in the arm? Alex McLeish and his Birmingham City team have of course the primary aim of maintaining Premier League status, but if their players can provide themselves and their supporters with a Europa League sub-plot next season while staying at the elite level, then this must constitute a win-win situation.
The only complication here is that in one of those rare instances when a manager of a ‘big club’ has taken the competition seriously, Arsene Wenger has decided that this should be Arsenal’s year. Perhaps it is motivated by a sense that ‘any trophy will do’ after five barren years rather than unrefined altruism, but it is fair to point out that they have been in it to win it from the first whistle, and that any changes tomorrow will owe more to an impending avalanche of fixtures than anything else. There is therefore another argument that Arsenal would be just as worthy winners of the competition as anyone, perhaps more so, given that theirs has been a very deliberate choice to field a strong side. For many managers, playing resources are too thin to even open up the possibility of fielding a weakened side.
That said, a few wry smiles may be on show if Birmingham were to pull off a surprise today. The post-Heysel ban robbed us of many ‘what if’ scenarios such as the 1988 Liverpool side’s potential matches against the Dutch-influenced AC Milan. However, we also missed out on some unfamiliar names appearing in the UEFA and CupWinners Cups. ‘Oxford United in Europe’ may not have been a popular console game were it released, but it is a well-earned part of their history that was taken from them by tragic events beyond their control. The same can be said for Luton Town, as well as the obvious instance that everybody points to – Wimbledon’s hugely under-rated but equally Crazy Gang. In an age where Premier League millions appear to mean everything, it is these openings that give cup competitions their credibility. Birmingham can strike a blow for the League Cup as well as themselves by reminding us all of this tomorrow.