Offside, 6 March

Next season we'll have to find a new term of derision for the Worthless Cup.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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Like most football fans I’ve long regarded the Worthington Cup – or the Worthless Cup as it is universally known – as a joke.

The cup has been little more than a consolation prize for teams like Leicester, Aston Villa, or Spurs, who are not good enough to win proper trophies – football’s equivalent of the BAFTAs, if you like. But, after Manchester United and Liverpool reached the 2003 final, has this much-derided tournament suddenly become worthwhile again?

The top Premiership teams have long been criticised for devaluing the Worthington Cup by their half-hearted participation. United in particular have often fielded second-string teams in Worthington Cup games. But last week, with one eye on the Worthington Cup Final, Alex Ferguson actually rested key first-team players in the Champions League game against Juventus.

At the final itself both sets of players and supporters gave a very good impression of taking part in a meaningful sporting contest. And judging by the way they celebrated, the Liverpool players were clearly delighted to have lifted the trophy.

But appearances can be deceptive. I bet that if you offered Liverpool the choice between the Worthington Cup and a Champions League berth they’d happily toss their newly acquired trophy straight into the Mersey. Gerard Houllier effectively gave the game away in his post-match response: ‘We will probably get a bit of relief now and we can play in Premiership with less pressure on us because we know we are in Europe.’

Note that he didn’t say: ‘This is one of the most prestigious prizes in world football’, or ‘Ever since I was a young boy I dreamt not of winning the Tour de France but of lifting your League Cup’. The Worthington Cup matters to Houllier because it provides a backdoor route into Europe, not because the prize is sufficiently glorious in itself. It is measure of Liverpool’s desperation that Houllier is relieved to have qualified for the UEFA Cup – these days just a poor man’s version of the Champions League.

It is perhaps understandable that Liverpool, whose hopes of Champions League qualification are rapidly receding, should take the Worthington Cup seriously, but what about Manchester United? Could it be that United, ignominiously dumped of the FA Cup by Arsenal and trailing behind the Gunners in the Premiership, saw the Worthington Cup as their most realistic chance of silverware this season?

I don’t think so. Of course, having reached the final, United wanted to win. It’s a matter of professional pride for one thing. A team that has forged a winning mentality never wants to lose a game of football, especially not to their arch-rivals from Merseyside. ‘Liverpool-Manchester United games are fantastic’, said Alex Ferguson. ‘It doesn’t matter if you were playing tiddlywinks it will be fantastically competitive.’

But one only has to look at United’s team sheets in the early rounds of this season’s tournament to understand that the Worthington Cup was not a high priority. Alex Ferguson fielded under-strength sides against Leicester and Burnley in the third and fourth rounds of the Cup. Youngsters such as Daniel Nardiello, Michael Stewart and Danny Pugh were allowed a rare taste of first team action, and even the veteran benchwarmer David May was given a run-out.

In essence, Fergie’s strategy of using the tournament to blood young players was much the same as in previous years. The only difference this season was that United were not eliminated despite their weakened line-ups. United’s progress was also considerably eased by the Football League’s decision to grant teams in Europe a bye to the third round.

So pardon me for raining on your parade scousers, but it is still the Worthless Cup as far as I’m concerned. However, from next season we’ll have to find a new term of derision for the trophy formerly known as the League Cup. The Football League is currently in negotiation with prospective new sponsors for the tournament after US drinks firm Coors Brewers, who own the Worthington brand, withdrew their sponsorship.

I think that’s a great shame. Worthington beer, an old-fogeyish brand that evokes memories of dingy old men’s pubs, is the perfect product to be associated with a second-rate football tournament. Coca-Cola by contrast, the tournament’s previous sponsor, was far too dynamic a brand for such a lowlife competition.

What the tournament needs is a suitably downmarket brand as the new sponsor. Just think, next season your team could be challenging for the Everything-for-a-Pound Shop Cup, the Thunderbird Wine Trophy or the Superdrug Haemorrhoids Cream Vase. And who wouldn’t be proud to win a prize like that?

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