League Cup Fever
Sunday's League Cup final gives Sunderland and Manchester City a welcome break from their vastly different respective Premier League ambitions, the welcome distraction of a showpiece final, and of course gives their fans an even more welcome Wembley day out. Beyond that, it offers Sunderland the opportunity to earn Europa League football next season, although that is almost guaranteed anyway, given the more than likely prospect of City earning a Champions League spot.
While not blessed with the same romance and sense of history as the FA Cup, it has thrown up just as many exciting and unexpected triumphs, especially in the earlier years when the more glamourous clubs deemed it not worth entering, the first two losing finalists being Rotherham United and Rochdale.
As a child, my first encounter with the competition was a grainy black and white highlights package on ITV's Star Soccer on a wet Sunday afternoon in March ( no blanket live footie in those days - only the FA and European Cup finals and the Home Internationals received such an honour). It was 1969 and the mighty Arsenal (yes, they of Double-winning glory only two years later), were humbled by then Third Division side Swindon Town 3-1 on a Wembley quagmire, after the pitch had staged the Horse of the Year Show the week before, and the two-goal extra-time hero Don Rogers became forever a hero in the annals of Swindon history. Another quirk of antiquated rules denied Swindon the chance to compete in the following season's Inter-cities Fairs Cup (subsequently the UEFA Cup and now the Europa League) because such a privilege was only bestowed on top division sides in those days.
Lower division underdogs have met with disproportional success in this competition. As a fledgling Aston Villa fan in the 1970's, I was rewarded with my team reaching three finals in six years, losing to Tottenham 2-0 as a Third Division side in 1971 (after beating the mighty Manchester United in a memorable two-legged semi), and then winning it in 1975 as a Second Division team, and then again two years later as a top-flight outfit in a thrilling 3-2 Old Trafford second replay (remember cup final replays, anyone?) after dour 0-0 and 1-1 draws against Everton. Anyone who saw it will never forget no-nonense centre-half Chris Nicholl letting fly from 35 yards, the ball still rising as it hit the back of the net. Ahhh, happy days.
The eighties saw the big clubs get more interested in the competition as a path to European riches, with Liverpool making the cup their own for four consecutive seasons, but nevertheless the proliferation of less prestigious clubs in the honours lists (Norwich City, Oxford United, Luton Town, Sheffield Wednesday et al) kept the lower leagues interested, and indeed Manchester United and Chelsea only once each graced any of the first 30 League Cup Finals. Things have changed a little since the turn of the millennium, with United, Chelsea and Liverpool sharing eight of the 13 cup wins, but even as recently as the last two years, Cardiff City and Bradford City have represented the lower divisons in the final, albeit unsuccessfully, while it is only three years since the unlikely and unfancied (and soon to be relegated) Birmingham City toppled the mighty Arsenal with a memorable last-minute winner.
So while Manchester City might be odds-on to claim the first leg of their much-vaunted "quadruple" - although Barcelona might have something more to say about that next week - Sunderland can cling to the fact that many a giant has stumbled at this stage before them, and with nothing to lose they might just upset the Sky Blue applecart on Sunday.