Ken Jones: Managers put the Worthington Cup in its place

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The Independent Football

The easiest invitation to turn down this week was one to watch Tottenham Hotspur and Bolton Wanderers contest a place in the semi-finals of the Worthington Cup; seat in a hospitality box, food and drink, get you there and back. No thanks. Better a book by the fireside, dinner for two, watch the History Channel.

It's not just that there is only so much football I can take but Bolton's manager, Sam Allardyce, had sensibly called time on his team's progress in the competition. "Obviously we'll try to win the game," he said, "but our main concern is making sure we are in the Premiership next season." No thoughts of qualifying for the Uefa Cup? "We wouldn't be ready for Europe if we got there," Allardyce added, bluntly.

Waiting until Tuesday night's results could be called up on the telly, I switched on to discover that Tottenham had put six goals past Bolton. And Arsenal, presently the Premiership's most thrilling team, had been thumped 4-0 in the Worthington Cup at Blackburn. No surprise there either. Rested along with other key players, Patrick Vieira took himself off to a cinema. I have no idea what the others got up to but a pretty safe bet is that they weren't anxiously waiting for news from Ewood Park where an attendance of barely 13,000 hardly suggested an upsurge in expectation. Tottenham's attendance was down by almost 10,000 on their League average.

A friend, a West Ham supporter, vigorously makes the point that the Worthington Cup means different things to different people. "For us [West Ham supporters] and people who follow lots of clubs who are never likely to win the Premiership or compete in the Champions' League, winning the Worthington Cup and getting into Europe would be a terrific experience. People can be as contemptuous as they like because everything in football is relative."

It was interesting then to read the comments of Arsenal's manager, Arsène Wenger, whose eyes are firmly fixed on the latter stages of the Champions' League and maintaining a challenge for the Premiership. "The only advantage in this competition is that you get into Europe for winning," he said. "I'd give it instead to the fifth or sixth placed club in the League." In other words, the Worthington Cup is an encumbrance, a commitment his and other clubs can do without.

Ironically (as the Football League Cup) it first sprang up in the mind of Alan Hardaker, a man so opposed to the idea of European competition that he used his influence as secretary of the League to prevent Chelsea, as the 1955 champions, from entering the European Cup.

Voted in at the annual meeting of the League in 1960 by a majority of only 15, the new competition did not meet with general approval and was openly condemned in some quarters of the game. British managers, players and crowds were just beginning to adjust to the lure of European football and here was another tournament, created to help the smaller clubs and not particularly lucrative, to clog up the fixture list still further. "It's a joke," one First Division manager said. "I give it three years." Five clubs, including those who had finished second, third, fourth and fifth in the First Division the previous season, refused to enter, thus devaluing the competition before it had even got off the ground. The following year the number of absentees swelled to 10, including seven of the top 10.

Despite contempt within the game, and as the press and public looked on with detachment, the League Cup went stuttering on until at last it took off in people's imagination. There isn't enough space to cover all the events that eventually justified Hardaker's enthusiasm, but by 1966, when the final was first held at Wembley and the old European Fairs Cup welcomed winners provided they were from the First Division, he was able to say: "The League Cup has become one of the highlights of the domestic soccer calendar."

Under various guises (as the Milk Cup, its commercials featured players drinking a beverage with which they were not entirely familiar) it has survived for more than 40 years but for how much longer? Doubtless, this season's Worthington Cup semi-finalists will be excited by the prospect of international competition and non-Premiership clubs are grateful for a share of around £80m annually generated. Problem is that the most powerful no longer take it seriously. People who think they do are, in the words of Dylan Thomas, as naïve as a puppy with a rubber bone.