Tomorrow's Coca-Cola Cup winners could have the prize of a Uefa Cup place taken away from them before the end of the season. The action would hasten the end of the competition in its current format.
The threat comes from Uefa, which is expected to remove the Association's right to offer a Uefa Cup place to the League Cup winners at its executive meeting on 19 April. Without such an incentive, many leading clubs can be expected to follow Manchester United's example and enter weakened teams. Restructuring of the competition would almost certainly follow. One FA official even went so far yesterday as to say privately: "We assume it will be the end of the competition."
Although Chris Hull, of the League, said: "They cannot do that, it is an agreement between the FA and the League", the FA's Steve Double admitted: "It may be written on a tablet of stone, but Uefa could cast it into the deep blue sea. The place is a gift from them."
The principles of natural justice suggest this year's winners will qualify, but even if they do the prospect of the competition losing a Uefa Cup place after next season would inevitably lessen its prestige, and the League would find it hard to match Coca-Cola's current sponsorship deal, which expires at the end of next season. The FA has written to Uefa defending the status quo but an FA official admitted: "We are not terribly confident."
The threat follows a misguided attempt by Uefa to reduce the size of the Premiership. It threatened to prevent countries with more than 18 teams in the top division (like England) allocating European places to league cup winners. Rather than cutting their division, however, Premier clubs reacted by welcoming the news, on the basis that it meant an extra place for a high Premiership finish.
Premiership clubs are committed to entering the League Cup, which would prevent a return to the absenteeism of its early days. With gate receipts, television income and prize money, the winners of tomorrow's final between Aston Villa and Leeds will gross pounds 2m from the competition - much more than the FA Cup winners. Yet even that, in proportion to Sky's millions, is less significant. So, these days, is the Wembley date.
Europe remains the real prize as Brian Little, Aston Villa's manager, underlined in midweek. When asked if the competition had grown in prestige he replied: "Definitely. A route into Europe means an awful lot to clubs like ourselves."
This year, with the Premiership losing a European place because of the insipid approach to the Intertoto Cup, it means even more. As things stand there will be only five English entrants into the three European competitions next season.
Hull said the League had "been assured the Uefa Cup place is safe for this season and next. We are confident it will be for years to come. Lennart Johannson [Uefa's president] recently suggested he did not care how many league games clubs played."Reuse content