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Andrea Calo 1st Oct 2008 - 14:12

Carling Cup: a tournament worth betting on

Carling Cup matches are a low priority for many Premier League football clubs, and that’s a shame. More than the FA Cup, the tournament formerly known as the League Cup has seen many shocks, surprises and upsets in its history and frequently makes for great entertainment. What’s more, the Carling Cup can offer some great betting opportunities for football betting – at some really good-value odds.

The Carling Cup, back when it was the League Cup, used to be a pretty sought-after trophy, although the biggest clubs (with a couple of notable exceptions) have never been too fond of it.

The idea of a cup tournament to produce extra revenue for lower-league sides was conceived in the late 1950s, when the growing popularity of television meant falling attendances throughout the Football League. At the same time the installation of floodlights at most grounds was making midweek evening games possible.

Alan Hardaker, secretary of the Football League, pushed through his solution: a football tournament for all league clubs based on two-legged ties – guaranteeing at least one extra home fixture for all 92 clubs, many of whom could go several seasons without drawing a home tie in the FA Cup.

Betting upsets from the start
In its earliest years the two-legged format continued to the final, and the first League Cup was won by Aston Villa, who beat second division Rotherham United on aggregate. Along the way Rotherham had helped earn the Cup’s reputation as a chance for small clubs to defy the bookies’ odds.

In a move that several Premier League managers would probably like to repeat, six top clubs refused to enter the competition. Their decisions looked justified by public opinion: average crowds for early League Cup games weren’t much higher than Third Division gates.

But abandoning the two-legged finals for a Wembley showpiece final, and promising a Fairs (now UEFA) Cup place for the winners, helped revive the League Cup’s image – and the big clubs’ interest. The tournament got its first all-giants final in 1968 when Leeds United beat Arsenal 1-0.

The big clubs didn’t have it their own way, however. Third Division clubs won the cup in 1967 and in 1969, when Swindon Town beat an Arsenal side that would go on to win League and FA Cup double in 1971.

Swindon’s league status prevented them from taking up the European place, but for the big clubs the lure of the tournament was fixed. In an era before widespread TV coverage, clubs’ revenues came from gate receipts – and more top-class games meant more money.

And before the Champions’ League, clubs judged success in silverware – and it was better to have a League Cup in the trophy cabinet than be second in the league table.

From League Cup to Carling Cup
By the 1980s the League Cup – soon to be renamed by sponsors as the Milk Cup, the Littlewoods Cup, the Rumbelows Cup, the Coca-Cola Cup, the Worthington Cup, and, since 2004, the Carling Cup – was in demand. And no club took the tournament more seriously than Liverpool, who won the trophy four times in the early 1980s, when they dominated English football, using pretty much the same team they fielded in League and European Cup fixtures.

It wasn’t until the Champions League began skewing club revenues that the Carling Cup and its predecessors started losing its appeal. Clubs became wary of risking big-name players in a tournament that drew little revenue and promised a UEFA Cup place at best.

Third or fourth place in the League and an empty trophy room became more lucrative than a mid-table position and a Carling Cup win.

At the same time foreign coaches began bringing to the Premier League an attitude – common abroad – where cup competitions were second-best to the league championship. The FA Cup and the Carling Cup became places to play promising youngsters and senior players returning from injury.

Carling Cup betting upsets
Thanks to this view of the Carling Cup, the tournament has thrown up some thrilling matches and betting upsets over the years, like in 1974 when Fourth Division Chester City knocked out reigning League Champions Leeds United.

Then in 1995, when Alan Hansen famously claimed Manchester United wouldn’t win anything with kids, York City proved him (sort of) right when they knocked out a “weakened” Red Devils side that included youngsters like Ryan Giggs, Phil Neville and David Beckham – kids who went on to win the Premier League and FA Cup double that season.

Since then United have been sent packing by Southend and Coventry City, while Grimsby Town have despatched Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur. And it would be cruel to Sheffield United fans to call “weakened” the Arsenal side that beat them 6-0 in the Carling Cup earlier this season.

Unpredictability good for betting
Because of this unpredictability the Carling Cup can throw up some good betting opportunities.

Consider a match like Southend United v Manchester United. The match odds will be priced as if Southend were to play United’s first team – except the favourites would probably rest a superstar or two and give some youngsters and reserves a run-out. Any regular first-teamers playing will probably have half an eye on the weekend’s Premier League game.

Manchester United’s reserve side could – perhaps should – be stronger than Southend’s first team, but might perhaps lack experience and motivation. At the very least you’ll get a more evenly-balanced contest than the betting odds would suggest, and (if you back the underdog) a better run for your money.

This theory holds less water as the competition progresses. Teams tend to take the Carling Cup more seriously as the tournament goes on and their interest in other competitions lessens. Second-string sides are rarely fielded for Carling Cup finals.

But earlier rounds are frequently worth betting on, especially if you like backing outsiders at generous odds.


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