Last night, the powers-that-be at the SPFL announced a new format for the League Cup that will see the competition radically overhauled from the start of next season. While towards the latter stages of the competition it’s just as you’ll know it, the start of the new format sees a group stage and a move towards summer football.
In an industry not known for its positive or exciting innovation, I think the SPFL has come good here, despite the critics.
First of all, here’s how the new League Cup will work:
The first round will take place in July before the league season starts, with all SPFL teams not taking part in Europe being involved as well as the previous years’ Highland League and Lowland League champions (or, of course, the team relegated from League 2 if that’s the case).
The eight Premier League teams will be seeded and eight groups of five will be drawn. Each team will play every other team in the group once, with two home games and two away games – much like the UEFA Cup did before rebranding as the Europa League. A new twist that is almost unique in European football at the moment is that if a match ends in a draw there will be a penalty shoot-out, with the winners getting an extra bonus point – this is hoped to encourage more excitement in games that might end up being irrelevant towards the end of the group stage.
From there, the eight group winners and four best runners-up will advance to the Last 16 along with the four teams that have competed in European competition.
For me this is a lot of positive innovation, with many different facets of this new format being a real change to the Scottish game and one that has the potential to bring improvements, even if it is just to the League Cup.
First of all, this brings us into the realm of summer football. The group stage will take place entirely in July and will mean that almost all teams in Scotland have some meaningful games early on in the season to go to, rather than pre-season friendlies that are typically torrid affairs. But while the games are still competitive, it still gives the bigger clubs the chance to try out different teams, different combinations and see what works before the league season begins in earnest – because losing one League Cup game isn’t the end of the world if there’s another three to play. This means that we will hopefully see more young players come through and get some competitive experience, and it could also mean there could be more giant killings – which is great for the neutral.
Speaking of the neutral, because this new format is taking place at a time when there is very little football on BT Sport have signed up to an £8 million four-year-deal to broadcast the tournament. This is a great deal for Scottish football, adding some new value to the game out of a tournament that used to be far less than glamourous. The excitement of something different has seen it get picked up already, and if it proves to be a success then more money could come our way. It’s not Premier League money, but it was never going to be for a tournament that’s only going to see 13 games televised across the season. This cash will boost prize money and hopefully give some of the smaller clubs in the SPFL that little bit more spending money to develop the game. This is not to mention the fact that it means that all clubs in the lower leagues are now guaranteed a visit from or to a Premier League side which will bring them extra revenue as well as a great opportunity for fans.
The new League Cup makes a tournament that was once considered the ugly sister of the Scottish football landscape into something far more attractive. I’m hoping for a cultural change in the way we view the competition, something akin to what Twenty20 cricket did for that sport in England. With summer football, we can get barbecues on at games, or (one day) get a few drinks and watch the football whilst it’s warm outside. Even if it doesn’t pan out that way, it still makes for a more interesting competition that isn’t caught between the grandeur and history of the Scottish Cup and the excitement and unpredictability of the Challenge Cup.
The SPFL have made some positive change for the game and we should be encouraging that as much as possible. It’s not something you’ll have heard often in the past, but I’m betting that many fans in Scotland are now looking forward to the League Cup next year.