The League Cup Group Stage Review

EYEBROWS were raised when it was announced that the League Cup was to undergo a revamp for this season.

Back came the group stages, a popular format in the 70’s, and that the final would be played in November, a welcome change to waiting three months between the Quarter Finals and Semi Finals, whilst there was the introduction of a penalty shootout at the end of drawn group matches to earn a bonus point.

Some would say it was revolutionary, others would argue it was plain bonkers.

As the group stages reached their conclusion at the weekend, the big question is have the changes to the League Cup worked?

Of course, there are arguments on both sides, otherwise life would be boring, so let’s get the negative points out the way first.

Attendances would suggest that work needs to be done for people to buy into the new format and that it may take time for fans to get used to the idea, which is understandable given that the middle of July is an unusual time to kick off your new season – unless your side has qualified for Europe.

There are others who have simply given up on the League Cup being of any importance since the prize of a European slot was taken away two decades ago, therefore no revamp will change their mindset.

Some people have also argued that the middle of July is too early to start their season and that their team can’t get into their stride as a result.

Tell that to fans of the four clubs who qualified for Europe and began their campaign up to two weeks before (in Aberdeen and Hearts case, the same night of a Euro 2016 Quarter Final). From that point of view, it’s only fair that the others kick off their campaign close to the same time.

The ones who moan the most about their team “not being ready” for the early start are top flight clubs, complaining that they’re still building up their fitness. Whilst they may have a point, to use that as an argument when losing to a part-time team, also starting their season early and who, likely, wouldn’t have had much rest given they have full time jobs on top of their club careers, is a weak case in comparison. The reason why, for example, Dundee exited the competition, losing to East Fife (on penalties) and Peterhead, is because they didn’t perform on the day, not because the opposition were fitter.

Penalties after a drawn game for sides to earn a bonus point  have also come in for criticism, with critics saying it’s a bonkers way of ending a bog standard group match. However, the idea of penalties does keep a tie interesting, with less people leaving a game early knowing that the game won’t be over if the scores are tied. Dundee United fans certainly won’t be complaining too much, two of their matches resulted in penalty shootout victories, enabling them to qualify as one of the best four runners up whereas they could’ve missed out without the bonus points. For Peterhead, a penalty shootout win over Dumbarton was the difference between progression and elimination.

When it was announced that the group stages were coming back, critics from yesteryear grumbled that they would be a walkover for the bigger clubs and that they were ditched for that reason.

Three Premiership clubs have tumbled out of the competition, including holders Ross County, and two League One sides, Alloa and Peterhead, have progressed as group winners ahead of stronger opposition from the two leagues above them whilst only two sides, Rangers and Partick Thistle, boasted 100% records. Those stats suggest the top flight clubs had a harder task to qualify than critics thought.

One other positive that has been sounded out is the fact that players are saying that it beats pre-season. Being involved in competitive action early on will help their match sharpness going into the new season as opposed to bog standard friendlies involving multiple substitutions.

On the whole, the new League Cup group stage firmly has been successful from the point of view that a lot of interest has been generated by pundits, players, managers and the fans who’ve been going along to the 40 matches across eight regionalised sections.

This was the right competition to have this experiment as interest had gradually declined in a tournament that had no European place and a drawn out format where the first round was played in July/August and the final was played in March.

Reverting to the short/snappy format getting the tournament out the way before winter is definitely a positive for everyone concerned.

Of course, the caveat of European football being missing is a drawback to this tournament and it’s hard to justify bringing that back whilst we only have four available, and one of them belongs to the Scottish Cup winners.

However, don’t tell me that winning the League Cup means nothing to fans these days.

For Ross County last season, it delivered their first ever major trophy. For St Mirren, it ended a 25 year wait for a national trophy. For my club, Aberdeen, it attracted 43,000 of us to see us end nearly 19 years without a trophy.

Even Old Firm fans will occasionally savour League Cup success, especially if it’s after an Old Firm final. Also, without it, there is no treble to brag about.

The League Cup was on life support when the SPFL announced their revolutionary changes to revamp the competition.

BT Sport and Betfred have both bought into the competition and the debut season of group stages with a bonus point penalty shootout has been welcome by most fans and clubs alike.

Here’s hoping that more people will buy into the new League Cup over the next few years!

J Bleasdale

I am a football fan with a passion for writing, briefly studied journalism before other priorities got in the way. Enjoy blogging as its my way of expressing my thoughts on Scottish Football. Even though I'm an Aberdeen fan primarily, I'm happy to express my impartial views on other clubs.