Although Motherwell picked up a vital 1-0 win over Dundee last weekend and remain on…
The world’s gaze might be squarely focused on Russia at the moment but closer to home, the first competitive fixtures of the season are approaching fast. The League Cup kicks off at the end of next week with the still relatively novel format of a group stage, since the competition was restructured for the beginning of the 2016/17 season. It was a shake-up the League Cup desperately needed as the SPFL attempted to breathe life into a stale and outdated competition.
So here we are two years down the line, a little bit older and a little wiser. We’ve had two seasons to get used to the new format; to see what works, what needs improving and what lessons we can learn from the previous two editions. The overhaul of the cup format is probably the most radical change that the SPFL has instigated since playoffs were introduced across all four divisions for the 2013/14 campaign. The question is: has it worked? The evidence so far suggests that the answer is an emphatic yes.
It’s fair to say that the SPFL have been unafraid to think outside the box with regards to the League Cup. The reformatting has benefitted clubs throughout all levels of the Scottish football pyramid with the organisers unafraid to use it as a testing ground for slightly left-field ideas. They might not all work but the fact that Scotland has a club association that’s willing to try new things is in itself quite refreshing.
By bringing the start of the competition forward to what used to be pre-season, Scottish football took its first tentative steps towards summer football in a move that deserves some credit. We always moan about players’ fitness levels when our cubs face opponents who are halfway through their domestic season in European qualifiers, or during winter when entire rounds of fixtures are cancelled at the last minute due to poor weather.
A change to summer football would help in both instances here and, as time marches on, it’s likely to be a debate we’ll have at some point in the future. Obviously, the League Cup in its present format doesn’t affect either of these issues currently – clubs with European ties don’t enter until the knockout phase and the final is held in November, long before the cold weather becomes problematic – but it does reflect a certain openness to innovation that’s encouraging.
The decision to implement a penalty shootout for matches that ended in a draw – with a bonus point on offer for the winner – is another new thought that initially sounded a little daft, but has proved to be an interesting concept. Turgid stalemates can still occur occasionally, but at least there’s still a wee bit of drama at the end for fans to look forward to. In practice, the two points for a win on penalties has livened up the tournament, giving smaller clubs hope of gaining an extra couple of points by battling for a draw and taking their chances in the lottery of a shootout.
Even the decision to admit the Lowland and Highland League champions looks promising for all involved. Semi-professional clubs get to mix it with their SPFL counterparts and test themselves against a higher calibre of player and produce memorable wins for the fans over more fancied opposition. Cove Rangers and East Kilbride have both picked up wins, with the latter coming very close to qualifying from their group last season, proving that the Highland and Lowland league clubs have what it takes to compete at this level. It’s another form of innovation that’s hard to argue against.
The biggest beneficiaries of the change in format, however, are clubs at the lower end of Scottish football. The implementation of a group stage means that every side involved is guaranteed a minimum of two home games; for clubs living on the breadline, this can make a huge difference to their finances. Under the old format, clubs would have to progress to the third or fourth round until they earned the opportunity for a money-spinning tie against Premiership opposition. Now, they’re just about guaranteed to face at least one Premiership side, with a 50/50 chance of a lucrative home fixture. Attendances were still lower on average than league matches, but an extra couple of home fixtures – coupled with any television money on offer – can be the difference between bringing in a new signing or having to go without for sides in League One and League Two.
There’s also evidence to suggest that for clubs at the other end of the SPFL hierarchy, the new League Cup format can provide the perfect buildup to the upcoming league campaign. The chances of being drawn in a group with another Premiership side are slim – around one in eight – so, in theory at least, each top-flight club is presented with four matches where they can reasonably expect a win. Having a run of winnable games before the league season begins can provide not only match fitness but also create momentum and can really help kickstart a club’s season.
The graphic above illustrates how many points each group winner over the last two seasons has picked up over their first five league games. As we can see, there’s a correlation between a successful League Cup group stage and a club’s league performance, relative to their own ambitions. With the exception of Falkirk and possibly Livingston, each of last year’s group winners went on to have a strong start to their respective league campaigns. The lesson is clear: a successful group stage will, more often than not, lead to a strong start to the campaign.
As well as benefiting from what they will generally consider being a kind draw, lesser Premiership clubs also gain a run of competitive fixtures, generating match fitness. Under the old format, clubs involved in European qualifiers had two or four games already under their belt before the league season began. Playing competitive matches is always the most effective method of preparing a squad and even playing just a few games can make all the difference when the Premiership kicks off. By giving clubs who aren’t involved in Europe matches that matter, the SPFL have ensured that all twelve Premiership clubs are ready when the campaign begins.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the rejigged League Cup has one last string to it’s bow: it’s a lot more fun than its predecessor. More games mean teams have a greater likelihood of facing another side at some point over the next few seasons, which is always going to throw up interesting fixtures. This year, for instance, Kenny Miller will make his management debut in the competition that kicks off with an intriguing prospect when Kilmarnock host recently-promoted St Mirren on Friday, April 13th. Last year, we had two exciting derbies; Dundee United beat Dundee on penalties while in Ayrshire, Ayr United sealed a memorable win over their neighbours Kilmarnock. In 2016, Peterhead overcame Dundee in an entertaining match that the home fans are unlikely to forget anytime soon.
Being Scottish, it’s easy (and tempting) to look at whatever the SPFL do and find a reason to moan about it but in the case of the League Cup, the club association deserves a huge amount of credit. They’ve reinvigorated what had become an incredibly dull competition and have shown no signs of caution when it comes to innovation. A good performance in the group stage can help performances on the pitch, while just the fact that there’s even a match being played at all will help smaller clubs’ finances off of it. Players reach match fitness sooner than they would otherwise and the proliferation of matches results throws up intriguing matches with interesting subplots. The SPFL don’t always get it right but it’s only fair to commend them when they do. In the case of the League Cup, they’ve hardly put a foot wrong.