I came to bury the League Cup, not to praise it…
The dappled half-light of Lake Garda was too much of a draw to plug into iFollow. When I saw the team to play Swansea last night, it confirmed that if Karl Robinson doesn’t care for the tournament, then neither should I.
The League Cup is our competition, it made our name, it gave us our history and saved us in ways we often miss. Had Jim Smith not been able to use it as a catapult towards the big league in the 1980s, would he have retuned in 2006 to help wrestle the club from Firoz Kassam? I doubt it. Would we have sustained decent crowds in The Conference? Probably not. Without the League Cup, I suspect our history would be very different.
But it’s changed; you can resist it and deny it, but it has. Its original purpose was to give additional commercial opportunities to impoverished clubs between the start of the season and the start of the FA Cup. It served a purpose, it added value, with a rare trip to Wembley for the finalists, there was prestige. Now it gets in the way, the early rounds are little more than a pre-season friendly after the season starts.
You had to have patience to enjoy it; it wasn’t the explosive knock-out of the FA Cup. Games would be over two legs often weeks apart, in later rounds there would be replays and second replays, now there isn’t even extra-time. The manager’s ultimate objective seems to play the least-best team to get by; an eternal game of one-downsmanship. The only next step is to deliberately lose. That’s a big step, but if you don’t care about winning, then losing isn’t such a big thing.
Boris Johnson was right about one thing, but only one, the herd instinct is strong; and the herd has moved on from the League Cup. When I checked my phone after 25 minutes and we were two down, I’d moved on too. It was time to declare it meaningless.
Mountains and lakes have a funny way of giving you a perspective of what’s important and what isn’t. I wondered why we’re bothering to flog this dead duck, when you’re the smaller team and playing at home, and you’re still making eight changes, it’s clear how important it really is.
There were people perambulating along the lake, a few children jumping off the jetty and goups of young, tanned, beautiful Germans and Italians sitting on the grass as my phone announced that Alex Gorrin had pulled one back. If it had meaning in the confides of the Kassam Stadium, apart from it’s great to see him back playing, it didn’t reach the province of Trentino.
We were back in our apartment as the game drew to a close, I tapped refresh to get confirmation that it was over when suddenly, there it was, Brannagan. Goal. Isn’t that just typical?
Penalties came thick and fast, if you follow both Oxford Mail and the official account on Twitter, then everything is double-time and sometimes out of sequence. Green tick emojis invaded my timeline, everyone was converting their spot kicks, then a red cross, McGinty saves. For the second game running, the hero appears from a file marked ‘Ones For The Future’. They seem to be for the now.
And, as if pre-scipted, here’s Cameron Brannagan to finish the job. Brannagan’s like Paul McCartney; others battle away playing their best songs, then Brannagan takes to the stage, breaks out Hey Jude and brings the house down.
As the ball hits the net, it all means something again, the mechanics of the tie – two goals down, a fortuitous first, a last minute equaliser, a win on penalties against a Championship side – mirrors our 2019 win over Millwall; the last first round game in front of a crowd at The Kassam. That enabled a 4-0 win over West Ham, a breathtaking sweep of Sunderland and a full-house quarter-final against Manchester City. Maybe this thing does still have meaning, you just need a little more patience to enjoy it.