The League Cup (or Carling Cup) is exactly what it represents, the 20 Premier League plus 72 Football League clubs playing a knockout tournament for the chance of reaching a Wembley final, winning the trophy and Europa League qualification which comes with it.
Whilst the FA Cup is open to teams from way down the football pyramid the League Cup is for league clubs only, however in recent years there’s been criticism that the tournament creates more congestion on an already busy football calendar and some of the bigger clubs in England have used the competition as an excuse to blood youngsters into competitive first-team action.
The competition enters its 50th year in 2011 and over the years has provided some memorable matches – the semi-finals no exception. The last four is made up of two-legged affairs with a match contested at each team’s home ground and the aggregate victors progressing to Wembley, which throws up great cup-tie football. With the semi-final stage of the competition beginning this week, Toppo’s Top Tens takes a look back through the archives to present some great League Cup semi-finals.
10: Blackburn Rovers v Sheffield Wednesday 1993
In 1993 Wednesday reached the FA and League Cup finals, losing to Arsenal on both occasions. Their League Cup semi with Blackburn finished 6-3 to the Owls but the first leg at Ewood Park against a strong Rovers outfit showed how on their day they could beat anyone. Roy Wegerle put Blackburn in front before John Harkes equalised not long after and John Sheridan put Wednesday 2-1 up after a nice one-two in the penalty area after 20 minutes. Ten minutes later it was 4-1 thanks to two clinical strikes from Paul Warhurst before Carlton Palmer nodded in an own goal to make it 4-2 – this all before half-time. The scoring stopped there and in the second leg Wednesday assured themselves further of a place in the final, defeating Rovers 2-1.
9: Nottingham Forest v Coventry 1990
Under Brian Clough Nottingham Forest had a great record in the League Cup, winning it four times and reaching the final on two further occasions. In the 1990 semi-finals they faced Coventry City who’d won the FA Cup three years previously. The first leg was played on a muddy City Ground pitch in the February cold. Nigel Clough put Forest ahead in the first half from the penalty spot before Steve Livingston equalised in the second – a vital away goal for the Sky Blues.
Then Forest captain Stuart Pearce scored the crucial second. The Reds won a free kick on the right corner of the penalty box and left-back Pearce unleashed an unstoppable drive which curled and went in off the bar. The game ended 2-1 and in the second leg Forest held out for a 0-0 draw, going on to win the trophy against Oldham at Wembley for the second season running.
8: Queens Park Rangers v Liverpool 1986
The 1985/86 League Cup threw up some surprises (not least that the competition was sponsored by Milk and therefore known as the ‘Milk Cup’) but for the fact that the final was contested between two unfancied teams – Oxford United and QPR. Oxford won 3-0 but QPR reached that final thanks to a fine aggregate win over Liverpool, who’d won the trophy four times in five years and were gunning for the domestic treble of the League Championship, FA Cup and League Cup.
In the first leg at Loftus Road centre back Terry Fenwick put QPR ahead and the game remained 1-0, a deficit by no means impossible for Liverpool to overturn in the second leg at Anfield – they did that thanks to Steve McMahon just before half-time.
In the second half QPR restored their one goal lead thanks to a comical own goal between Jim Beglin and Ronnie Whelan, Beglin’s clearance deflecting into the net off his teammate. Liverpool levelled the tie after a long clearance upfield was knocked on by Ian Rush to Craig Johnson, who managed to lift the ball over the advancing goalkeeper for 2-2. However more was to come as Liverpool midfielder Gary Gillespie put the ball into his own goal trying to defend a cross under pressure – the goal knocking the Reds out and seeing QPR progress.
7: Oldham v West Ham 1990
In 1990 Oldham were in the middle of a memorable season. Pushing for promotion from the Second Division into the top flight they reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup where they nearly beat Manchester United and also got to the League Cup final, being defeated narrowly by Nottingham Forest.
Joe Royle’s men were a team to fear and in the semi-finals of the League Cup they faced West Ham, humbling them 6-0 in the first leg. Goals from Neil Adams, Earl Barrett, Rick Holden and two from Andy Ritchie completed the rout, which took place on February 14th, leading it to be dubbed the Valentines Day Massacre. Oldham did lose 3-0 in the return leg at Upton Park a few weeks later but it didn’t really matter.
6. West Ham United v Stoke City 1972
The 1972 League Cup was the first major trophy Stoke City won, defeating Chelsea in the final. Prior to that they played out an epic semi-final against West Ham United which consisted of the usual two-legged affair plus two replays to find the victors, the second replay a classic.
The drama began when West Ham goalkeeper Bobby Ferguson was concussed by a challenge from Stoke’s Terry Conroy. After seven minutes of treatment he left the pitch but West Ham did not use a substitute in the hope he’d be fit to continue. Bobby Moore ended up in-goal and saved a penalty from Mike Barnard who followed up to score. Billy Bonds scored the equaliser on the half hour and then set up Trevor Brooking for the Hammers’ second nine minutes later.
West Ham’s goalkeeper returned to the action but conceded an equaliser from Peter Dobing in the eighth minute of first-half injury-time. Conroy gave Stoke a 3-2 lead in the second half and Harry Redknapp twice hit the post for West Ham but The Potters held on for a place in the Wembley showpiece.
5: Arsenal v Tottenham Hotspur 2008
Despite Arsenal’s preference for fielding fringe players in the Carling Cup in recent years, when they met their closest rivals in 2008 it was always going to mean something. Having drawn 1-1 at the Emirates in the first-leg, Spurs were seeking to make their home advantage count in the return and they did in storming fashion.
Jermaine Jenas put them ahead with an angled shot off the post early on, Nicklas Bendtner put through his own goal for 2-0 then Robbie Keane made it 3-0 on the night, 4-1 on aggregate. Aaron Lennon sidefooted a fourth for Tottenham before Emmanuel Adebayor claimed a consolation and Steed Malbranque completed the rout adding Tottenham’s fifth goal in injury time. The win was significant for Spurs at the time as they had not beaten The Gunners in any match since November 1999 and they went on to win the cup with a 2-1 victory over Chelsea in the final.
4: Blackburn Rovers v Aston Villa 2010
This semi-final from last year’s competition was all about goals with ten coming in the second leg alone. Villa won the first tie 1-0 at Ewood Park but even they would not have expected what happened on their home ground.
Blackburn cancelled out the Villa goal thanks to a ninth-minute goal from Niko Kalinic then took the lead in the tie sixteen minutes later as Kalinic tapped in his second. Three minutes later Stephen Warnock slammed in an equaliser at the back post but Blackburn had away goals advantage. James Milner then put Villa 3-2 up on aggregate before the end of the first-half from the penalty spot after Blackburn defender Chris Samba was sent off for a professional foul on Gabby Agbonlahor.
In the second-half Villa extended their lead through a scrappy Steven Nzonzi own goal from a corner and a left-footed drive from Milner from outside the box. Even Emile Heskey scored as Villa looked assured of their place in the final. However an excellent overhead goal from Martin Olsson and Brett Emerton’s effort left fans reaching for the Abacuses as things got interesting again, until Ashley Young capped off an incredible match with a well-taken finish deep into injury time, making it 6-4 on the night and 7-4 to Villa on aggregate.
3: Arsenal v Tottenham Hotspur 1987
Another North London Derby features in this countdown as the two rivals played out an unforgettable semi-final replay at White Hart Lane, that is, if you’re of a red disposition.
The game meant much to all involved as the two teams were evenly matched and the League Cup took on added significance due to the banning of English clubs from European competition in the late 1980’s. Arsenal fought back from 2-0 down on aggregate on the same ground a few days previously but in the replay fell behind to a goal from Clive Allen, embarking on his incredible 49-goal haul that season. It seemed a tall order for the Gunners to come back again but they did in the 82nd minute thanks to a goal from substitute Ian Allinson and it was his deflected shot which fell to David Rocastle in the penalty area who poked home the winner a minute into injury-time. After 270 minutes of football, Arsenal finally led in the tie.
An incredible fightback from the Gunners and they went on to lift the cup, beating Liverpool 2-1 in the final, the first trophy the club won under the management of George Graham.
2: Tottenham Hotspur v Burnley 2009
Tottenham feature again in the list but this time for their win over Burnley in an enthralling semi-final two years ago. The Clarets under Owen Coyle shocked everyone by reaching the Premier League later in the year and they nearly caused another, two minutes away from knocking the holders Spurs out of the Carling Cup.
In the first leg at White Hart Lane Spurs trounced their Championship opponents 4-1 in the return at Turf Moor Burnley, playing some very good passing football, turned things around. Just after the half-hour Robbie Blake bent home a free-kick which gave Burnley hope and it was his skillful run and pass which presented Chris McCann with an easy sidefoot finish to reduce the arrears further with 18 minutes of the second half remaining.
With just three minutes of normal time remaining Burnley were 3-0 up on the night, levelling the tie after Ben Alnwick fumbled a long free-kick to the feet of Jay Rodriguez who knocked the ball into the net, sending the Turf Moor faithful into raptures. The game entered extra-time and if the scores remained the same after 120 minutes, Burnley would progress on away-goals.
With less than two minutes remaining it looked as if Burnley might just achieve what seemed impossible at the start of the night until Roman Pavulychenko netted beyond Brian Jensen to the relief of the Tottenham fans behind the goal. With Burnley’s players and fans deflated Spurs added another to seal a Wembley place through Jermain Defoe. Clarets fans were left dejected but what a match it was.
1: Aston Villa v Tranmere Rovers 1994
This two-legged epic went one way then the other from the first kick of the ball until the last as First Division Tranmere looked to spring a surprise against Ron Atkinson’s Villa team, in the top 8 of the Premier League.
In the first leg at Prenton Park Villa found themselves 3-0 down but Dalian Atkinson gave them hope for the return with a last-minute goal. In the second leg Villa went into a 2-0 lead through Dean Saunders and Shaun Teale’s diving header, levelling matters on aggregate. Then John Aldridge, the Tranmere striker, raced onto a ball over the top of the defence and was brought down in the penalty area by Villa’s ‘keeper Mark Bosnich, who could’ve easily been sent off. He wasn’t and his presence on the pitch proved to be crucial later in the game.
Aldridge scored the resulting penalty to put Rovers ahead in the tie and that’s how it stayed until late in the second half. Villa were two minutes away from going out until Dalian Atkinson nodded home a cross from the right and it seemed Villa had saved themselves. Liam O’Brien nearly put Tranmere into the final just two minutes later but his free-kick came back off the angle of the post and bar and Villa had another reprieve.
The match went to penalties and the spot-kicks were just as dramatic. Ged Brannan missed Tranmere’s third which meant defender Ugo Ehiogu could put Villa through if he scored his. He slammed it against the bar and John Aldridge levelled matters at 4-4. This meant sudden death and Kevin Richardson sent his penalty into orbit meaning Liam O’Brien had the opportunity to put Tranmere through. Kevin Keegan, ITV’s co-commentator, with similarities to his David Batty moment claimed “There will be no cooler man in the stadium.” O’Brien’s effort was saved by Bosnich and after Tony Daley scored for Villa, the goalkeeper completed a hat-trick of saves stopping Ian Nolan’s effort, sparking scenes of wild celebration around Villa Park. An incredible tie which had it all.