Perfect setting for high drama as Anfield expects

Peter Drury
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The Independent Online

Even the FA Cup has to fight, these days, for its right to be considered a competition of consequence. So what possible hope does its upstart country cousin, the Worthington Cup, have of convincing us all to take it seriously? At the end of a week when the senior knock-out trophy has been decorated by a couple of epic replays - an interminably tense penalty-shoot-out at Selhurst Park and the near-supernatural events at Tranmere Rovers - have we remembered that, the day after tomorrow, the season's first gongs will be handed out?

Even the FA Cup has to fight, these days, for its right to be considered a competition of consequence. So what possible hope does its upstart country cousin, the Worthington Cup, have of convincing us all to take it seriously? At the end of a week when the senior knock-out trophy has been decorated by a couple of epic replays - an interminably tense penalty-shoot-out at Selhurst Park and the near-supernatural events at Tranmere Rovers - have we remembered that, the day after tomorrow, the season's first gongs will be handed out?

At a time of year when the haute cuisine of high-level European football is being dished up daily through your television screen, where does Sunday's additional course fit onto the menu? Well, by way of attempting to answer those questions, let me report a brief discussion I had with an employee of Liverpool FC prior to last Sunday's FA Cup tie against Manchester City at Anfield.

At the start of a week which included that fixture, last night's second leg against Roma and Sunday's final, I asked: "If you had to lose one of the three, which would it be?" With understandable greed, his initial response was that they wanted to win all three and weren't contemplating defeat in any. Pushed a little further, however, it was interesting to hear his gut-feeling that: "We have absolutely got to win that final". I still didn't know which of the three he'd be prepared to lose, but what a fillip for the poor old League Cup that a great club like Liverpool would prioritise it in a week like this.

The fact is that the the constant bickering at the Worthington Cup's expense unfairly obscures the valid position it has in the balance of our domestic football season. Furthermore, almost invariably it produces a newsworthy denouement. Last year, little, old Tranmere made the final; the year before George Graham won a trophy for Spurs; go back to '94 when Villa denied Manchester United the domestic treble; Forest's two in a row for Cloughie '89 and '90; Luton in '88; Charlie Nicholas with two goals in '87 when, for the first time, Liverpool lost a match after Ian Rush had scored; the "Jim Smith" Oxford United v Queen's Park Rangers final of '86; Clive Walker's missed penalty for Sunderland in the '85 "friendly" final; Liverpool's four in a row before that; Andy Gray's winner for Wolves in '80; rookie Chris Woods' heroic goalkeeping for Forest in '78; the everlasting Aston Villa v Everton final of '77; and, perhaps, most famously of all, Swindon Town beating Arsenal in '69. And there's so much more.

Nor is it just ancient history which props up the League Cup. This year's competition has included some occasions which will represent notable memories for those involved. How much, in the first round, did Macclesfield Town enjoy beating Bolton Wanderers and Darlington revel in victory over Nottingham Forest? Lomano Lua Lua got a match-winning hat-trick for Colchester United at QPR and his big-money move to Newcastle United followed.

Round two: Stoke City beat Charlton Athletic in ten-goal thriller. Round three: Birmingham City win at Spurs and 32,000 at Sheffield derby. Round four: the Sunderland-Manchester United bout; Birmingham beat Newcastle; Liverpool hit eight. Quarter-finals: Palace stun Sunderland. Semi-finals: Clinton "The Lip" Morrison strikes for Palace, but Liverpool teach him a lesson. All great stuff.

So, we come to a final which, in a quirky sort of a way, might benefit from being played away from Wembley. It's useful for the Worthington Cup that it can be first to feed off the novelty of the Millennium Stadium, and I wonder whether Birmingham might feed off an odd precedent which has favoured Midlands teams. Aston Villa were the first winners of the competition in 1961; West Bromwich Albion were the winners of its last non-Wembley final in 1966 (and, incidentally, reached its first Wembley final a year later); since then, five finals have been decided away from Wembley (ie replays), of which three (Villa '77, Forest '78 and Leicester City '97) have been won by Midlands clubs and one (Liverpool '81) was played in Birmingham. Spooky! All of which is probably irrelevant tosh, because Liverpool are so darned good at the moment. And that, in itself, gives the occasion a special lustre. Sunday could be the day which launches a brand new glorious Anfield era.

Nor would it be the first time that the League Cup has performed that sort of role for a big club. George Graham's fine Arsenal side first collected winners' medals at the '87 League Cup final; perhaps Sir Alex Ferguson would still be plain "Mister" if it wasn't for the League Cup of '92.

Sir Trevor of Small Heath? Maybe. Either way, Sunday's should be a splendid occasion. Enjoy.

Peter Drury is an ITV sports commentator

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