Richard Sutcliffe: Liverpool get just rewards but Cup remains neglected

"THE FA Cup final is football's Ascot, the League Cup its equivalent of Derby Day at Epsom."

So said the late Football League secretary Alan Hardaker after having seen his brainchild become an established part of the English sporting calendar.

Hardaker's pride was understandable, especially considering the difficulties the League Cup had faced during its formative years.

That first season of 1960-61, for instance, had seen Arsenal, Sheffield Wednesday, Tottenham Hotspur, Wolverhampton Wanderers and West Bromwich Albion all refuse to take part due to fears over fixture congestion.

Likewise, the original concept of a two-legged final did not prove popular with the League Cup only truly capturing the public's imagination once the showpiece had been moved to Wembley.

Four or so decades on from Hardaker's analogy, however, things have changed somewhat with the League Cup, at least on the evidence of the past few days, now considered by top-flight managers to be more Donkey Derby than Derby Day.

What other way is there to interpret the fact that the 19 Premier League managers whose sides took part in the third round (Ian Holloway's Blackpool were already out) made a collective 148 team changes from the weekend.

That amounts to an average of almost eight per team. It would have been even higher, too, had Fulham's Mark Hughes and Sunderland's Steve Bruce not been the only two managers to remain true to the spirit of English football's second knockout competition by making just one and two changes respectively.

Elsewhere, Roberto Mancini and Sir Alex Ferguson led the impressions of a conductor whose bus has just reached the terminus by shouting 'all change' ahead of ties that saw the Manchester clubs make a maximum 11 changes. (Or, at least, Ferguson would if he could have been bothered to turn up at Scunthorpe United in the first place rather than jet out to Spain on a scouting trip.)

Spurs were not far behind as only Benot Assou-Ekotto of the 11 who started Saturday's 3-1 win over Wolves was named by Harry Redknapp in his line-up to take on Arsenal three days later.

In respect of the two Manchester clubs and Spurs, there are admittedly mitigating circumstances in that all three clubs are likely to play a lot of games this season due to their involvement in Europe. Ditto Chelsea (nine changes in losing to Newcastle) and Arsenal (eight ahead of their extra-time win at White Hart Lane).

But are the West Brom players really in for such a tough campaign that 10 of them had to miss Wednesday's meeting with Manchester City?

Or Birmingham City, where nine of the team beaten at St Andrews on Saturday watched from either the bench or stand as MK Dons were beaten 3-1.

Maybe Alex McLeish knows something we don't and his side are destined to go all the way to Wembley where, judging by the eight changes made by Mick McCarthy on Tuesday night ahead of Notts County's trip to Molineux, they will meet Wolves.

At least, Wolves, West Brom and Birmingham won. That is not a claim either Owen Coyle (eight changes) or David Moyes (six) can make after watching their sides humbled by Football League opposition.

It was a similar story at Anfield where Roy Hodgson's decision to rest all 11 of the players who started the 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford backfired spectacularly as lowly Northampton Town pulled off a giant upset.

Such a spectacular comeuppance was a rare crumb of comfort for those of us who can recall when the League Cup was a competition to be enjoyed rather than endured.