Football: Has the Coca-Cola Cup run out of fizz?

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The winners of the Coca-Cola Cup will not qualify for Europe next season, which has taken the gloss off a competition that was already losing its appeal for larger football clubs. Guy Hodgson assesses its future.

The Coca-Cola Cup begins its third round tonight although you would be hard put to find figures of real consequence who care very much. It may still set pulses racing in Hull and Stoke but among the big clubs it is quickly becoming an irksome irrelevance. It is a competition that is out of Europe, out of mind and probably out of time.

Take Ipswich Town. If Manchester United were visiting Portman Road in the FA Cup, Suffolk would be alive with anticipation at seeing Teddy Sheringham, Ryan Giggs etc get a potential come-uppence. The match has sold all 22,000 tickets yet it would be more of a surprise if Alex Ferguson did not field a reserve team.

United's recent attitude to the competition has been ambivalent at best. In 1994 they took an XI to Port Vale that was so short of first-teamers that the home club reported them to the Football League for fielding a weakened side. The fact that United won 2-1 undermined the case and the authorities at Lytham St Anne's let the matter drop.

To complicate the issue, seven of the team which included such non-names as Neville, Butt, Beckham, Scholes and Gillespie won the Double the following season. Such is the depth of young talent at Old Trafford, if Ferguson fields John Curtis and Michael Clegg tonight who is to say that a) the normal full-backs are fully fit or b) that either will not be established players in 18 months' time.

United had that attitude when the winners of the Coca-Cola Cup still qualified for the Uefa Cup; they are not going to change it now that the fruits of victory will be extra matches offset only by a slim chance of going to Wembley. What will be interesting is how other clubs react.

Newcastle have more reason than most to succeed, as they have not won a major trophy for all Sir John Hall's millions, yet they may use tomorrow night's tie against Hull to help Stuart Pearce and Alessandro Pistone's recuperation from injury. Liverpool will probably leave out Steve McManaman at West Bromwich.

Even Arsenal, who are out of Europe, are lukewarm. Arsene Wenger will rest 11 internationals tonight against Birmingham City including Emmanuel Petit who will have a bone scan today to discover whether he fractured an ankle playing for France on Saturday.

"I don't care if I am criticised," Wenger said. "I work for Arsenal and must do the best job for them, which means giving players the rest that they need. We would like to win the Coca-Cola Cup but it is not a big competition now that Uefa have said there will be no place in Europe at the end of it for the winners.

"I will be very surprised if the other big teams like Manchester United, Liverpool and Newcastle, who are entering this round at the same time as us, decide to field their best sides."

If the clubs are losing interest, then there is evidence to suggest supporters are going the same way too. Manchester City attracted only 12,563 for the home leg against Blackpool in the first round, half their normal attendance, while Bolton could tempt just 6,444 people to the spanking new Reebok Stadium for the visit of Leyton Orient.

The League's solution has been to go to the European Commission in an attempt to have the Uefa Cup place restored although it is unlikely they will succeed as Europe's governing body has already said they will do so if the Premiership is reduced from 20 to 18 clubs. Turkeys are more likely to vote for Christmas than chairmen for a smaller honeypot.

As for Ipswich they can only hope they will not suffer Port Vale's embarrassment and suffer defeat at the hands of youthful Manchester United side their own supporters did not feel were good enough. "I don't think it's in our remit to complain if they field a weakened team," David Rose, Ipswich's secretary said. "The Football League are aware of the situation and I'm sure they would look at it after the game."

And, in all probability, turn a blind eye. The Port Vale match three years ago set a precedent that the League would find hard to ignore. Leading clubs are looking to Europe League than a flat Coca-Cola and the competition is likely to become the province of the bottom half of the Premiership downwards.

There is a future for the League Cup, but it is along the lines of a glorified Full Members Cup.