The comments of Neil Warnock following Queen Park Rangers’ Carling Cup exit at the hands of League One side Rochdale paint a depressing picture for the current state of the competition, mirrored by the paltry crowds at Loftus Road and elsewhere.
Just 4,475 were present to see the Premier League newcomers bow out of the tournament, and Warnock was quoted as saying in the aftermath: “I
Warnock added that the Carling Cup needs ‘revamping’ in an effort to make the tournament relevant again, at least before the semi-final stage when the prospect of a trip to Wembley and a place in Europe becomes tangible. One of the main criticisms aimed at the Carling Cup is the added strain it puts on teams, a concern raised by Norwich City manager Paul Lambert after the Canaries also crashed out, hammered 4-0 at home by MK Dons. Lambert, who made 11 changes to the side that drew with Stoke City on Sunday, said: “The season is too hard to keep going with the same lads…We have to keep rotating in certain games. We need everybody and if we do that we’ve got a chance [of staying up].”
One possible solution to both managers’ worries – the need to reinvent the Carling Cup and lessen the exertion on the players – would be to introduce a rule making the competition primarily for players aged 23 and under for Premier League sides. This would encourage the top flight teams to blood young players – which many already do in the Carling Cup anyway – while allowing more senior players to rest later in the season, with a provision for three overage players in the match squad to add experience or provide an outlet for players returning from injury.
Likewise, pitting the lower ranked team at the time of the draw as the home side would, in the case of lower league teams against Premier League opposition, ensure a closer to capacity crowd, potentially give a revenue boost to teams lower down the pyramid and increase the likelihood of upsets, the lifeblood of any knockout competition. The Carling Cup would also be the ideal place to test new technology or rule changes, a practical use for an impractical competition, giving the tournament more of a purpose in the early stages and raising interest beyond the cursory level it evidently currently sits at.
There may be no perfect answer to how to solve the Carling Cup’s problems – indeed, the authorities may be content to maintain the status quo. But some proactive measures before the tournament collapses under the weight of the public’s indifference could salvage what is left of the Carling Cup’s prestige.