The League Cup is the black sheep of the domestic trophy family. Drew Heatley says it’s time we loved the competition.
This season marks the League Cup’s 59th in existence. We have, of course, never missed one. But we’ve also never made real mark on it. The furthest we’ve gone in the competition is the quarter-finals, which we’ve done just five times. The latest was in 2004/05, when a late Frank Lampard strike denied us extra time at the Cottage, as eventual winners Chelsea progressed with a 2-1 win on a cold November night.
Brian McBride scored our goal that day. The fact that Elvis Hammond teed him up shows how long it’s been since we made a real attempt to win the three-handled trophy that’s been sponsored by everything from defunct electronics retailer Rumbelows to the humble glass of milk.
On Tuesday we head back to the New Den – the scene of one of our finest away wins on our way to sealing a play-off place – as we bid to progress to the fourth round of this year’s competition. Our home victory against Exeter saw a vastly different side to the one that beat Burnley just 48 hours earlier, as Slav rung the changes. But he didn’t “send out the kids”. Only Steven Sessegnon and Luca De La Torre came into the squad from the under-23s. And neither played. It was an inconspicuous statement of intent. And that makes me think we can go one – or even two – steps better than 2004.
Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a kind draw. No one enjoys going to Millwall, for obvious reasons. Leeds barely scraped a point on the weekend and although Neil Harris’s boys have enjoyed a tough start to their league campaign, they showed their quality last season, narrowly missing out on a play-off berth. But why shouldn’t we be looking at a run in a cup that many clubs overlook?
We reached the fourth round in our maiden Premier League season last time around, falling to Spurs at home in November 2001. But the Whites reached the quarter finals twice in the previous two seasons. The 1999/00 seasons even saw us put Tottenham to the sword in one of the most memorable nights under Cottage lights until our Europa run.
Blackburn Rovers may have missed out on the Division One title, but they lifted the League Cup in 2001/02. So, why can’t emulate them this season? We did, of course, reach the semi-finals of the FA Cup in our first Premier League campaign. It proved a nice distraction to the toils of the league and, in my opinion, actually helped our survival bid by providing some much needed confidence as the season headed towards its crescendo.
The decision taken this summer to scrap extra time goes some way to easing any fears around fatigue, should we progress to a stage where Slav’s compelled to bring out the big guns. And it weakens one of the favourite excuses of many a manager when it comes to this competition.
We’re one of 32 teams left. We’re just five games away from (another) trip to Wembley. We’re a club that found love with the lesser sibling of the Champions League – I think it’s time we realised the beauty in this ugly duckling.