I know that the competition has had a number of names over the years according to the particular sponsors at the time, but to me it has always been the League Cup. The current title, the EFL Cup, sounds to me just like a trendy attempt to use initials to jazz up interest in, what, after all, is traditionally the minor competition in the English football calendar. I can never understand why so many clubs treat it comparatively flippantly, because in many ways it is the easiest of the trophies to win, and winning it is a passport into Europe for the following season.
Clubs like ourselves, who were in Europe this season (albeit briefly in our case), received a bye into round 3, and by winning two home games against Accrington Stanley and Chelsea, now find ourselves in round 5, which is the quarter-finals. Get through this round and you are into a two-legged semi-final with the prospect of a trip to Wembley for the winner. Effectively you only have to beat five other clubs to land the trophy.
Now I am old enough to remember the competition starting in 1960-61. It had a controversial beginning and some of the bigger clubs in the Football League didn’t even enter at first. And though it gained surprisingly more popularity than a lot thought it would, many teams even today use the early rounds in particular to give a run out to squad players who wouldn’t necessarily be first choice for Premier League games.
From the outset of the competition we always fielded strong sides, and it is only comparatively recently that we haven’t gone flat out in the early rounds to try to progress. In 1960-61 the side we put out against Darlington was virtually identical to the team that had scored five goals in a Division One game just two days earlier, and the one that put six goals past Arsenal less than a fortnight later. Nevertheless we still managed an ignominious defeat at the hands of a lower division team (3-2), something we have managed to do consistently in our 56 attempts to win this competition. Throughout the years we have been beaten by football giants such as Rotherham, Huddersfield, Stockport (twice), Barnsley, Luton, Oldham (twice), Oxford, Crewe, Northampton, Chesterfield, Aldershot, Wigan, and most recently, Sheffield United. Nottingham Forest have eliminated us four times!
We have been knocked out in Round One on one occasion, Round Two eleven times, Round Three nineteen times, and Round Four ten times. That means we have reached the quarter-final on 15 previous occasions, and our trip to Old Trafford is number 16. Of those 15, we have gone out at the quarter-final stage just six times, and progressed further in nine, which is a decent enough record. But in our nine semi-finals we have only reached the final twice, losing to West Brom in the last of the two-legged finals in 1965-66 (the following year the final was held at Wembley for the first time), and then in a replay to Liverpool in 1980-81, when we were a second tier team taking on the best club in England at the time. That was Liverpool’s first win of the League Cup trophy, but they have gone on to dominate since, and have won it the most times (8).
Of all the players in our current squad, only Noble and Sakho had scored a goal in this competition in previous seasons. Noble scored in the two-legged semi-final in 2010-11 when we went out to Birmingham, and Sakho found the net when we were eliminated by Sheffield United on penalties the season before last. Of course, Payet, Kouyate and Fernandes have all notched a goal this time around. Players of yester-year, on the other hand, managed quite a few goals in League Cup games, with six reaching double figures, Cross and Goddard (12), Stewart (14), Byrne (15), Cottee (18), and Geoff Hurst the most prolific, notching 43 goals in just 47 League Cup appearances.
However, I’ll always remember the penalty Geoff Hurst had saved by Gordon Banks in the final minutes of the semi-final second leg against Stoke in 1971-72. If that had gone in we would have been through to the final (probably). As it was, in the days before penalty shoot-outs, that epic semi-final tie took four games to settle before we lost 3-2 in the dramatic second replay, even though Bobby Moore saved a penalty when taking over in goal from the injured Ferguson (no substitute keepers in those days!).
This is only the third time we have ever faced Manchester United in the League Cup. In our record breaking season of 1985-86, they knocked us out 1-0 in Round 3, whereas on 30 November 2010 (exactly six years ago today, when it was called the Carling Cup) we famously beat them 4-0 in the quarter-final on a freezing night at Upton Park, with a brace apiece for Jonathan Spector and Carlton Cole.
It is 22 years since we last lost a game on the final day of November. Since then we’ve won three and drawn one, with 10 goals scored and only two conceded. And who can ever forget November 30 1988, when we famously put four past Liverpool in a League Cup fourth round game?
It would be great to progress to another semi-final, and then we could even begin to dream of another trip to Wembley. Manchester United are not the force of old, and I am looking forward to us repeating our promising visit there last Sunday, but this time returning with a victory.