I’ll be honest, this is not likely to be my finest literary work. I’ve tried to find an angle for last night’s defeat to QPR, but nothing has come to the fore. The reality is, the result is most likely to be filed alongside such honourable League Cup exits as the 1-0 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday in 2016 and the penalty loss to Watford last year. You may remember them, or, more likely, not.
Given our history, you’d think that a League Cup game against QPR might stir some kind of emotion, but as much as the 1986 final marked our pinnacle, the 2021 re-rub, maybe just reminded us only of the competition’s increasing irrelevance in modern domestic football.
Playing a weakened side in the League Cup is an affectation of the modern game. It’s almost unprofessional to take it seriously. If you’re not the bigger team protecting your assets for greater challenges, you’re the smaller team protecting your assets because you don’t expect to win anyway. Any game in which everyone is happy to lose is not in a healthy state. In a post-pandemic world, where we’ve been forced to re-consider our priorities and what we believe to be important, we have to question what role the League Cup now plays.
Generally speaking I’m a traditionalist; in my head I’ve developed a blueprint to revitalise the FA Cup, which one day I’ll release to the world. But, plot spoiler, it’s draws heavily from my FA Cup experiences in the 1980s. I’d like to say that I feel similarly compelled towards the League Cup, it is, after all ‘ours’. Truth be known, I’m beginning to concede that it’s becoming a lost cause.
Did we need to be reminded of Rob Dickie’s quality? Of the chasm between the Championship and League 1? Did we need to stretch our squad, which is already looking a bit threadbare? Did we even need to mush together 2000 Oxford fans in the midst of a pandemic? What did we gain?
Ultimately, it’s like playing a pre-season friendly three weeks after the season’s started. A leg stretcher of which the result is of secondary importance. There have been notable recent exceptions, of course, playing Manchester City twice and beating West Ham, but things have to fall your way for those nights to happen; often they don’t.
Maybe that’s the answer; maybe the draw should be loaded so that the lower team always plays at home, something to destabilise the status quo. I don’t know that I have the energy to develop the pros and cons of that idea.
Whatever, ultimately August is a card sorting month, the equivalent of checking you’ve got your keys and wallet before you head out. It can propel you forward, it can be a wake up call, but it’s just something to negotiate before things get serious. Perhaps the good news is that things are about to get serious; we weren’t expecting to win the League Cup, few had ambitions to go beyond the first couple of rounds. The season will be defined by the league and we have some key fixtures on the horizon. With Lincoln and Wycombe coming up and the need to get points on the board paramount, perhaps the best thing about last night’s game is that we didn’t win it.