Since it was first introduced, the League Cup has provided an array of memorable moments. From dazzling debuts to famous upsets, the competition has established a reputation as being among the most exciting in world football. As the curtain comes down on its 60th year, we reflect on the special moments that have shaped this season’s campaign.
Whether it’s the thrill of a giant-killing, the nerves of a penalty shoot-out or unique sense of tradition that comes with watching your team drawn out of the hat, there’s much to admire about the magic of the League Cup.
There is no doubt, as the competition celebrates its 60th anniversary, that it continues to create special moments both on and off the pitch. This season has been no different, with millions of fans tuning in to watch Clubs battle it out to win the first piece of silverware of the domestic season.
On a late summer’s evening in Essex, Colchester United defeated League Two counterparts Swindon Town to record their first League Cup win since 2010. It was an impressive result against one of the division’s high-flying sides, but nobody could have predicted the journey that awaited John McGreal’s men in this season’s Carabao Cup, and it would be subsequent results that would go down in history with U’s fans.
Premier League opposition awaited in Rounds Two and Three, but Colchester produced two incredible upsets to make it to Round Four of the competition, beating Crystal Palace (their first League Cup win over top-flight opposition since 1979) and Tottenham Hotspur, on penalties. In doing so, they became the first side from outside the top flight to win penalty shoot-outs against two top-tier sides in the same League Cup campaign since Bradford City in the 2012/13 season. It was shaping up to be a campaign to remember.
Victory over Crawley Town in Round Four secured Colchester a Quarter-Final spot for the first time since 1974, setting up a dream tie against “the biggest club on the planet”, according to manager McGreal. Five-time winners Manchester United proved a step too far for the Essex side, however, but the immense pride around the club was clear to see as fans travelled in their numbers to Old Trafford. Such was the feeling around the feat, McGreal recently described this season’s cup run as his biggest achievement in management.
These are the moments that make the Carabao Cup special.
Oxford United were the other EFL side to defy the odds in reaching the Quarter-Finals, defeating higher placed opposition in Millwall and West Ham United, before welcoming holders Manchester City to the Kassam Stadium for the second consecutive season. Oxford last tasted League Cup success in 1986 and put Pep Guardiola’s side to the test in their quest to advance to the last four. Karl Robinson’s men managed a total of 18 shots during what was a thoroughly entertaining game – the most City have faced in any single match under Guardiola, but the Premier League champions eventually ran out 3-1 winners.
Amid the giant-killings, youth has once again caught the eye as stars of the future continue to make their mark on the game.
The opportunity and experience that the Carabao Cup offers is unrivalled in the English game, providing young players with the platform to showcase their ability on the big stage. Footballing icons such as David Beckham, John Terry and Wayne Rooney went on to have distinguished careers in the game having featured in the League Cup as youngsters, so it’s no surprise that the competition has gone from strength to strength in this area over the years.
Amongst Guardiola’s City side that advanced was 18-year-old Taylor Harwood-Bellis. The youngster made his debut for the Citizens in their impressive display against Preston North End in Round Three; he was part of a defence that kept a clean sheet and his performance earned him place in the squad for the rounds that followed.
The City starlet wasn’t the only youngster that impressed in this Carabao Cup campaign. Derby County’s Lee Buchanan scored the only goal of the game on his senior debut for the Rams, as they brushed aside Scunthorpe United in Round One. Similar to him is Birmingham City’s Jude Bellingham. The midfielder made his debut for the Blues in their Round One fixture and, in doing so, became the club’s youngest-ever player at the tender age of 16 years and 38 days. Bellingham has since gone on to feature regularly in the Sky Bet Championship, with over 30 appearances to his name this season.
Last season, Harvey Elliott found fame in the cup, making his Fulham debut at just 15 years of age, in turn becoming the youngest-ever player in League Cup history. After a move to Liverpool in the summer, he then became the youngest-ever player to start for the Reds in their 2-0 win over MK Dons in Round Three.
Fans may also remember Luke Matheson. As if playing at Old Trafford as a 16-year-old wasn’t special enough, Rochdale’s teenage starlet fulfilled every young lad’s dream, scoring in front of 58,000 fans at the Theatre of Dreams. He stole the headlines, as his equaliser took the tie to a penalty shoot-out. He also earned himself a move to Wolverhampton Wanderers in the January transfer window.
With just four teams remaining, the Semi-Finals were a spectacle, and showed why the League Cup well and truly matters.
City were victorious against neighbours United, and are today looking to become only the second side in history to win a third consecutive League Cup Final.
Further south, with Aston Villa looking for domestic cup success for the first time in 24 years, it took a 93rd-minute winner to book their place in today’s Final. The Semi-Final second leg at Villa Park was one of the most dramatic nights the competition has seen in recent history, and at one of the country’s most historic venues, too.
Manager Dean Smith has openly declared his love for this competition and is now dreaming of lifting the famous trophy himself. His captain, Birmingham-born Jack Grealish, was just five months old the last time the Villans lifted a major trophy.
Sunday's Final is the last chapter in yet another League Cup story well worth telling. It’s been a season which has brought life to some fascinating sub-plots, up and coming characters and, ultimately, two worthy protagonists.
The moral? Expect the unexpected.