The inconsequential magic of the cup

The early rounds of the League Cup in recent years has been a kind of clearing system between pre-season friendlies and the season proper. It’s kind of competitive, but at the same time, it doesn’t really matter. We don’t expect to win, but it’s kind of nice to be involved.

It’s like we’ve arrived too early for a party and we’re self consciously eyeing up the buffet which still has cling film all over it while a waitress asks you, again, whether you’d like a drink. Naturally, you decline, and instead read the fire regulations poster to avoid eye-contact.

It feels too early to get excited by something like this, especially when the Premier League is still having its early scuffles about which multi-billion pound player is going to which club. There’s something heartening about watching Sky Sports scratching around for something to get excited about. You want to see them squirming for as long as possible. It’s a shame to get the season going.

It’s a bit like those years when we missed the Conference play-offs and we found ourselves completing our season before April was out. It felt like your mum was picking you up from the school disco at 8.30pm.

In recent years, we’ve done OK in the early rounds and the games we have been involved in have acquired a purpose in themselves. Bristol Rovers in 2010 was a wonderful reintroduction to proper football after three years in the wilderness. The reward, West Ham, was a gallant, noble and last minute exit.

Against Cardiff in 2011 we gave a good team a good go and went out with no shame at all, and last year we took another good team, Bournemouth, to penalties and won. Each game seemed to signal something positive.

Against Charlton on Tuesday there was a more muted anticipation. The Portsmouth game, and then result, overshadowed it by some considerable margin. As a result we were semi-interested, we know that teams at Charlton’s level are semi-interested, so it was never really going to be a humdinger. We were hopeful, but not expectant.

The team was announced, four changes, but with so many new names, who knows whether that means we’ve rested players or not.

Being the nice family club they are, they politely dismantled us and the League Cup evaporated almost as soon as it appeared. In fact, the only value the competition offered was an aperitif to big fixtures reveal back in June.

Looking back, there have been precious few League Cup games which have seemed so innocuous. A couple of defeats to Gillingham, which I can’t remember, but otherwise there’s always been something of interest to remark on. This year it felt a bit like one of those FA Trophy games where you start with a vague interest in reaching Wembley and quickly go and find something better to do. 

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