Carling Cup offers a lifeline to proletariat

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The thousands who queued from dawn at The Reebok, ringing the stadium like protesters encircling a military installation, and the hundreds of Bolton Wanderers fans still seeking a ticket for tomorrow's final against Middlesbrough, have no doubts. The Football League Cup, aka the Carling Cup, is a worthy tournament.

Tony Cuthbert, the secretary of Notts County, heartily agrees. County fans are too concerned about today's critical Second Division relegation fixture at Brentford to take much interest in events at the Millennium Stadium but, said Cuthbert, if it were not for the Carling Cup they may not have a match to go to.

The competition provided Notts with a rare shaft of light amid two grim years when they were drawn at Chelsea in the third round. At the time the club were seeking to emerge from more than a year in administration. "It was," said Cuthbert, "a fantastic occasion for the players and fans to go somewhere like Stamford Bridge." More importantly it also wiped out a significant chunk of debt and illustrated to potential investors the upside of owning the club.

"It gave the new company a taste of what things could be like," said Cuthbert. "They'd seen all the negatives, this showed them it was worth being involved. The match was a big factor in coming out of administration. Without it the new company would have had to find an extra £400,000."

Lincoln City were less successful. The Third Division team went out at home, in the first round, in front of just 2,296 spectators. Yet Rob Bradley, the chairman, is also a fan. "Every bit helps," he said. "We were disappointed to go out because you want to be in the cups for as long as possible, to earn some money and maybe play a larger club."

For Cuthbert, Bradley and other lower division officials, the Carling Cup is about more than a chance to mix it with Manchester United. From the sale of meat pies to boosting the value of the League's television deal it contributes significantly to the club finances.

Each season the competition brings in £25m to the Football League who describe it as "the most important form of wealth re-distribution in football and [our] most valuable asset".

So, a worthy competition. Except for the irony which underpins it. The League describes the cup as its "most valuable asset" because it includes all the Premiership clubs and is thus an attraction to terrestrial television companies. The clubs support it, most fielding strong teams, because it offers a place in Europe. Yet those teams' record in Europe is, with one exception, abysmal.

In the 36 years since a European place was available just 12 teams have qualified for Europe solely through winning the cup (others would have qualified anyway or were denied entry). Of that dozen only one team, Tottenham, who reached the Uefa Cup final in 1974, have passed the second round. Seven have fallen at the first stage. In the last 20 years the only clubs defeated by these clubs have been Spora, of Luxembourg, Zimbru Chisinau, of Moldova, CSKA Sofia and, remarkably in this context, Internazionale. In the next round their conquerors, Aston Villa, lost to Trabzonspur. It is a record that suggests this perk is hard to justify. How was it awarded?

The Football League Cup has never been centre stage. First mooted in 1892, the idea was raised again in 1957 with the publication of the "Pattern of Football", one of the many blueprints produced by football authorities over the years. Like most the key finding (a proposal for five divisions of 20 clubs) was dismissed, but the idea of a league cup, originally floated to compensate for lost fixtures, was retained.

Not everyone agreed. The motion was passed by just 15 votes at the League's AGM and when the competition began, in 1960, five First Division clubs opted out. After an 11-month competition Aston Villa won a two-leg final against Rotherham. The first leg, at Villa Park, attracted just 12,226 fans; one match, at Lincoln, drew 1,737, a record that stood until the miners' strike of 1974 forced midweek afternoon kick-offs.

The following season 10 clubs, including seven of the top 10 and Second Division Liverpool, refused to participate. Spotland joined Millmoor in hosting a national final for the first and last time as Rochdale, of the Fourth Division, lost to Norwich City of the Second. A Second City derby, Birmingham City defeating Aston Villa, perked up the third competition but it remained "Hardaker's Folly", after the autocratic secretary of the League, Alan Hardaker, who had driven its inception.

When, in 1966, Chelsea, the holders, became one of the eight teams to pull out, including seven of the top eight, it was clear a rescue operation was required. Hardaker pushed through a winning combination, a Wembley final and a place in Europe. Though only Everton, the FA Cup holders, and Liverpool, the league champions, were not seduced, the winners came from the Third Division, Queen's Park Rangers overcoming a 2-0 deficit to stun West Bromwich Albion in front of 98,000 at Wembley and a huge television audience.

Although QPR could not take up the European place, the competition was established. By 1972 average attendances were 19,000 per fixture and Hardaker could say: "If the FA Cup final is football's Ascot, the League Cup final is its Derby Day."

Though much has changed the comparison remains valid. At a time when the FA Cup is increasingly dominated by football's aristocracy, the League Cup remains open to the proletariat. Tranmere Rovers were in the 2000 final and Birmingham City, then First Division, the following year. This season's winner will be the seventh different name on the cup in nine years.

However, the competition has undoubtedly declined in prominence. Even the FA Cup, with its historic hold on the nation's consciousness, has been unable to withstand the twin threats posed by the rise of the Premiership and the expansion of the Champions' League. Arsenal and, to a lesser extent, Chelsea and Liverpool, have followed Manchester United's lead in fielding weakened teams as have less renown clubs. ITV and Carling may have hoped Arsenal's semi-reserve team went all the way to Cardiff but Middlesbrough's semi-final conquest was good for the competition's credibility.

The Football League, alarmed as average gates dipped below 10,000, tweaked its baby to keep the big clubs interested. Replays were dispensed with, every round, except the semi-final, is one-leg, and clubs competing in Europe enter at the third round stage. Partly as a consequence the competition has revived, helped by the fact that last year's final not only featured Liverpool and Manchester United, but that both clubs desperately wanted to win it (at the time it seemed Arsenal would be champions).

Attendances have risen for the fourth consecutive season and at an average of 13,023 are at their highest since the mid-1980s, though still some way behind the previous decade.

There was one other significant event in preserving the competition's place in the calendar. A few years ago a determined lobbying campaign persuaded Uefa to continue allowing the League Cup winners entry into the Uefa Cup. This, states the League, is "set in stone" as a fundamental part of the tri-partite agreement between the FA, League and FA Premier League which marked the latter's founding in 1992. However, Uefa makes its own rules and threatened to take the place away. It was eventually persuaded of its value to the overall fabric of the English game.

So what of this year? Both clubs are thrilled to be in the final, especially Bolton, who sold 30,000 tickets in eight hours. Their last major honour, the 1958 FA Cup, was unpopular as Nat Lofthouse battered a Manchester United team still mourning the Munich air disaster. This time they will have plenty of neutral support. Sam Allardyce is a well-liked manager while Youri Djorkaeff, Jay-Jay Okocha and Ivan Campo are three of the Premiership's most recognisable class acts.

Boro will not lack for backers either. Though this is their fourth final in eight seasons they have never won a major trophy in 129 years. In Juninho, Bolo Zenden and Gaizka Mendieta they have their own three amigos and, as long as Steve McClaren resists the temptation to stifle the game, it should be a good match.

The victors will enter Europe for the first time. For the sake of the competition it is to be hoped they perform better than most predecessors. As Cuthbert said: "The big clubs may not see it as important but to us the Carling Cup is a very worthwhile and very important."