If the FA Cup is football's Ascot, then the League Cup is its Derby Day."

 

Those were the words Alan Hardaker, the man behind the creation of The League Cup.

 

Hardaker was the Secretary of The League who tried to introduce major plans for reform in 1960. The "Pattern for Football" centred on the restructuring of the League into four divisions of 20 clubs with four-up and four-down promotion and relegation. To replace the revenue lost by playing fewer League games, Hardaker suggested a new cup competition that would be played in midweek.

 

However, Hardaker's grand plan was thrown out by the clubs - except for the cup competition. The League Cup was born.

 

League president Sir Joe Richards backed Hardaker's cup with his own money, buying the trophy which still bears his name.

 

The Cup would be based on two legged ties to help smaller clubs make money, but Division One clubs did not share Hardaker's plan for money generation and several boycotted the competition in the early years.

 

The first League Cup competition took place in season 1960/61 with Second Division Rotherham United making it through to a final with Division One side Aston Villa. The Millers looked set for a famous win when they led 2-0 after the first leg, but Villa made the most of home advantage to win take the cup with a 3-2 aggregate win after extra-time.

 

But public interest in the early years was poor and average crowds were only slightly higher than those for Third Division games. The 1961/62 competition again failed to catch the imagination, but it was significant for the fact that it produced the first major final not to feature a club from the top division. Second Division Norwich City defeated Fourth Division Rochdale to claim the trophy.

 

Birmingham City, Leicester City and Chelsea restored order for the next three seasons as the competition began to catch the imagination of the top flight clubs.

 

West Bromwich Albion's win in 1966 against a West Ham United team containing the trio of Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst, who would go on the become World Cup heroes a few weeks later, was to be the last of the two-legged finals.

 

The increasing popularity of the competition meant a new home was needed for the final - and Wembley's twin towers beckoned.

 

But the first Wembley Final in 1967 showed that football is never predictable as Third Division Queens Park Rangers, led by young star Rodney Marsh, stunned West Bromwich Albion to take the trophy in front of 98,000 fans.

 

The dream of Wembley final was just one thing that changed the big clubs' views of The League Cup - the second was the path to Europe.

 

Hardaker had lobbied UEFA  (and even threatened to boycott the Fairs Cup) to earn the winners of The League Cup an automatic place in Europe.

 

The Fairs Cup place became available for the 1966/67 competition - unfortunately for the eventual winners QPR it was only available to Division One sides. In fact the first team to qualify for Europe via The League Cup route was Tottenham Hotspur in 1971.

 

Leeds beat Arsenal in the first Final involving two "big" teams. It was the first major trophy of Don Revie's reign at Elland Road and started one of the most successful periods in the club's history.

 

The 1969 Final saw Arsenal return to Wembley to face Third Division Swindon Town. A stroll in the park for the Gunners then? This is football - and it is a funny old game. Final score: Swindon Town 3 - 1 Arsenal. It was one of the biggest cup final upsets of all time.

 

Neither Leeds nor Swindon took up the European place available from the League Cup for differing reasons. Leeds had already qualified via their League placing, but Swindon fell foul of the rule regarding clubs outside Division One and were deemed ineligible.

 

Hardaker's hard work in securing the European place was not rewarded again in 1970 as winners Manchester City were to defend the European Cup Winners Cup instead.

 

Tottenham Hotspur were the first to take the League Cup's cudgels into Europe when they defeated a then Third Division Aston Villa side in the final.

 

The next six finals saw more success for Tottenham (1973), Manchester City (1976), Aston Villa (1975), while Wolves and Stoke City were first time winners.

 

The 1977 final went down in history because it went on and on and on ..

 

Aston Villa met Everton and it took three games and more than 330 minutes of football to find a winner. The first match at Wembley ended goalless, the second at Old Trafford ended 1 - 1, before the third game at Hillsborough finally saw Villa claim their third League Cup with a 3 - 2 extra-time win.

 

The 1978 Final saw two teams meet who were to dominate The League Cup for several years.

 

Either Nottingham Forest or Liverpool would win the trophy six times in seven seasons. The only break was Wolves victory in 1980 - and even then they had to beat Forest in the final!

 

Forest started the ball rolling with wins against Liverpool (1978) and Southampton (1979) before Wolves separated the two giants in 1980.

 

The next four years belonged to Liverpool as they totally dominated the competition.

 

A win against West Ham United in 1981 - the final season under the title The Football League Cup - was followed by successes against Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United and Everton as sponsorship came to the competition.

 

A deal was signed with the Milk Marketing Board in 1981 and The League Cup became the Milk Cup for the 1981/82 season. The trophy name might have changed, but the winners didn't for a further three years as Liverpool continued to dominate.

 

The 1985 and 1986 Milk Cup competitions saw two of the League's smaller clubs achieve well-deserved success.

 

Norwich City and Sunderland contested the 1985 final -  it became known as "the Friendly Final" due to the excellent behaviour of both sets of supporters - with the Canaries winning through an own goal. But the excitement of reaching a major final was short-lived as both clubs experienced the pain of relegation from Division 1 at the end of the season.

 

The 1986 final saw Oxford United win their first major trophy as they swept QPR aside 3-0.

 

There was a new sponsor in 1987 as the competition became the Littlewoods Cup and more first time winners - although few would have thought Arsenal would take so long to win the trophy. After two failed attempts in 1968 and 1969 it was third time lucky for the Gunners as two Charlie Nicholas goals defeated Liverpool.

 

And the Gunners had clearly savoured the taste of League Cup glory and were back the following year for more. But little Luton Town had other ideas and became yet another first time winner as they edged a five-goal thriller.

 

1989 and 1990 saw the return of the cup kings Nottingham Forest as they equalled Liverpool's record of four wins. Luton Town, who returned to Wembley in defence of their title, were the victims in 1989, while Second Division Oldham Athletic reached their first major final in 1990 before losing 1-0.

 

New sponsors and new winners came along in 1991 - and it was another case of a lower league team defeating more illustrious opponents. Ex-Manchester United manager Ron Atkinson took his Sheffield Wednesday team to Wembley to face a few old faces from Old Trafford in what was now the Rumbelows Cup Final. John Sheridan's goal ensured the trophy went into the Hillsborough cabinet for the first time.

 

A year later United were back and this time there was joy - and their first League Cup. Nottingham Forest - again - were the other finalists but a 1-0 win ensured the trophy went to Old Trafford.

 

The 1992/93 competition saw the beginning of a six-year relationship with new sponsors Coca-Cola and a number of unique records and near misses.

 

The first season of the Coca Cola Cup saw Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday meet in the final - just as they would do in the FA Cup Final. And it was the Gunners who claimed a unique double as they followed up their 2-1 win in the League Cup with FA Cup victory in May.

 

The following season saw Manchester United chasing the first-ever domestic treble. But despite going on the win the double of Premier League and FA Cup, the Old Trafford giants fell at the first hurdle as Aston Villa swept to a 3-1 win in the League Cup.

 

Liverpool and Aston Villa enjoyed more League Cup success in 1995 and 1996, before Leicester City began their own love affair with the competition.

 

Three final appearances in four seasons made the Foxes the team to fear in the League Cup. A replay win against Middlesbrough in 1997 was matched by victory against First Division Tranmere Rovers in 2000. In between City had lost to Tottenham in 1999 - the first year under new sponsors Worthington - while Chelsea had won the first part of a unique League Cup/Cup Winner's Cup double with their win against Middlesbrough in 1998.

 

The five-year association with the Worthington brand - which ended with last season's Liverpool v Manchester United Final - brought a rise in the competition's fortunes.

 

The success for Tottenham and Leicester was followed by a change of venue for the competition final in 2001.

 

With Wembley closed down a new home was found at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

 

League Cup specialists Liverpool faced Division One side Birmingham City in the first domestic final to be played at the magnificent stadium - and they produced a thrilling contest which was settled with the first final to be settled by penalties. Liverpool won the trophy for the sixth time.

 

The following season, with the competition attracting its highest average attendances for 20 years, Blackburn Rovers secured their first cup win for more than 60 years with victory against Tottenham Hotspur. The final was the first to be played under cover as the Millennium Stadium's massive sliding roof was closed to protect spectators and players from a torrential downpour.

 













Attendances continued to rise during the 2002/2003 season and the competition ended in a final between two of British football's heavyweights. Liverpool secured the trophy for a record seventh time as they defeated Manchester United 2-0 in a game that attracted Sky Sports largest live audience for more than five years.

 

So after 24 years the League Cup is alive and kicking, and going from strength to strength. A new sponsorship deal has been signed with Coors Brewers which will see the competition renamed the Carling Cup.

 

The Cup has had its critics over the years, but with crowds last season up by more than 16% and giant killing acts aplenty, it proves time and again that it can still stir the emotions of players and supporters.

 

The competition also remains the biggest re-distributor of wealth in the game. This season's competition is worth approximately £40 million, with more than half of that going to Football League clubs.

 

And with the winners guaranteed a place in the UEFA Cup for at least another season the competitions rejuvenation over recent years looks set to continue.