The reintroduction of “mini-leagues” to breathe new life into the Scottish League Cup will, almost certainly, be welcomed by all football supporters who are old enough to recall the enjoyment and anticipation of the new season creating some very tasty encounters.
I think the majority of players in those heady days of yore had identical feelings. Once a few meaningless friendlies had brought the match fitness to bear (after thundering up and down the dunes at Gullane!), there was nothing to beat the first competitive encounter in your section of the League Cup.
The competition therefore threw up some very tasty fixtures; the fact it was not immediately a “knockout” scenario was, in my opinion, an important element of the format. Invariably, players needed several weeks of competitive football, first of all to reach full match fitness but – just as crucially – to achieve a blend within the team following the arrival of new signings in many key areas of the managerial planning which had gone on in the summer.
Bringing new players to any professional club for the beginning of a new season bears no similarity to replacing, for example, workers in a production line. It takes considerable time to find out how different players like to receive the ball, where quality, pace or different skills lie, where weaknesses in a player’s armoury alert his team-mates not to supply the ball in certain ways, etc. Starting the new season without the agony of potential instant dismissal within a knockout format therefore had some great advantages. Players – and, no doubt, managers as well – will surely welcome the reversion to less punishing conclusions, following the decision to reintroduce the mini-leagues.
I am less convinced, however, that penalty shoot-outs should be applied to drawn matches. There is considerable merit in playing against a “bigger” team away from home, getting tactics and playing performances spot-on and achieving a well-merited share of the points. While the penalty shoot-out creates great excitement for the fans, it often cruelly destroys the terrific performance displayed in earning a share of the points after a great 90-minute performance. My jury is therefore out on that one.
The prospects of a highly enjoyable tournament (for both players and fans) are thus highly promising. I am firmly opposed to artificial surfaces and I worry that these may become vogue; they should play no part in the future of the sport if skills are ever to be reinstated. If there is a side issue within this refreshed tournament, therefore, it should not be the use of such surfaces.
I do have one other feeling of disappointment, however, (as one who was lucky enough to play in an era of outstanding personal skills in the vast majority of Scottish clubs). It seems like the ruling powers are applying plenty of thought to the highly visible aspect of the professional game in Scotland, but continue to ignore the urgency of a grass-roots revolution to kick-start the re-emergence of far greater numbers of youngsters to the sport. Technological and other indoor recreational developments have seriously depleted the numbers who did little else after school than play football. The continuing failure to address this problem, in my opinion, remains the greatest threat to the professional game ever recovering the excitement and entertainment which my colleagues and I were so lucky to enjoy.
Finally, on an optimistic note, new season fixtures could be revitalised by this return to the old format (or, at least, most of it). It could easily throw up fascinating encounters and I think there will be a huge feeling of anticipation among fans. Let’s hope that the tournament itself and the potential for an exciting additional array of matches around the whole country herald a terrific new start.