In both the women’s and the men’s game, the League Cup is seen as an irrelevant irritation. But what if you brought the two together…?
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If there is one thing that unites English men’s and women’s football, it is the recognition of the pointlessness of the League Cup. No matter which odd consumer item they are named after for advertising rights (currently an energy drink in the men’s game and tyres in the women’s), the competition tends to figure as more of an annoyance in the football calendar than one posing much excitement.
On the women’s side of things, the Continental Cup has attracted derision for its confusing points system. Draws in group games lead to a penalty shoot out after 90 minutes – the winner takes two points, the lower just one. The vast disparity between the Women’s Super League teams and Women’s Championship teams that contest it mean matches tend to be a forgone conclusion. The mid-week matches seem particularly unfair on the part-time players who make up Women’s Championship sides who have to travel, play, then go to work the next morning.
This year’s winner, Chelsea manager Emma Hayes, spent much of her team’s run to the trophy calling for it be scrapped. She rightly pointed out how the competition stops clubs from building continuity as it contributes to large gaps in the league season between home matches. Other managers have agreed with the sentiment, whilst the competition this season was little more than a procession for the top four teams in the country to the semi-finals.
Meanwhile in the men’s competition, the League Cup has long been the refuge of under-21 players at larger clubs destined to soon be sent out on loan. Championship clubs are focused on the much more lucrative promotion push so have increasingly also chosen to play youth. This state of affairs leads to “giant killings” which are the result of unrecognisable youth teams being knocked out by League One sides, whilst any big team that makes it to the final is then practically guaranteed a fairly meaningless victory. None of which makes for particularly satisfying viewing.
As the women’s game in England has professionalised, the Football Association has often been accused of a bias towards clubs associated with traditionally big men’s teams. There are understandable reasons for doing this. Large pre-existing fan bases seem easier to convert to the women’s game than growing them from the ground up. I’m sure the interest in the women’s game is seen as just as much of a good as the cross-marketing potential. Meanwhile, the multi-million pound budgets of men’s teams supposedly offer the women’s game a host of facilities and opportunities.
Yet whilst plausible in theory, the reality often looks very different. Clubs like Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City have shown that it is possible for large clubs to place considerable investment into their women’s teams, but for many clubs there is little to no incentive to support the women’s team beyond the bare minimum. You only have to look to Liverpool’s new state of the art training facility which is currently being built without any plans to have their women’s team play there. To follow the FA’s plan to its logical conclusion, there needs to be something that pushes clubs to see their women’s teams as more than a politically correct bit on the side.
The opportunity for men’s and women’s teams to compete together in a mixed team format is currently impossible under Football Association rules that forbid men and women playing together beyond the age of 18. However, this does not preclude the possibility of men’s and women’s teams competing within their gender categories but under the same name.
So imagine this: scrap the league cup competition from the men’s and women’s game and replace it instead with a competition that incorporates both teams under one club. A two-pronged cup competition where two clubs have their men’s teams play each other and their women’s teams play each other. It could take a group stage format where sets of matches saw points accumulated for each club or a knock out format which takes an aggregated score of both games to determine the victor.
It would be entirely unsurprising if once club suits saw the success of their men’s team wedded to the success of their women’s team, they began to think more carefully about the operational and financial support afforded to it. After all, it is easier to ignore the situation your women’s side faces if results are relegated to slim column inches in regional newspapers.
Linking the timing of games in a competition like this would also stop fans being regularly forced to choose whether to watch the men’s team or the women’s team, as the constant rearrangement of Premier League matches to suit broadcasting needs makes it hard to feasibly watch both leagues. Choosing to play games back to back or on consecutive days would make the bridge between men’s and women’s teams a lot easier to cross.
Of course, the practical questions that come out of something like this are numerous. There are still two teams in the Women’s Championship who are unaffiliated with a men’s club: London City Lionesses and Durham, whilst other teams like Lewes play at a much higher equivalent level than their men’s team. There is nowhere near enough parity within women’s football to feasibly take even the Premier League teams women’s squads into a competition like this. Less than half of the current clubs have a team in the top division of women’s football.
But if the FA genuinely thinks that encouraging parent clubs from the upper echelons of men’s football is the way to improve women’s football in this country, they should at least give them a reason to be proactive about it. Linking them up through a cup competition could be a great place to start.
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