carling: terrible for beer but great for football

Triumphs, Upsets, Molson Coors: Remembering The Golden Age of The Carling Cup

When Molson Coors won the sponsorship of the League Cup in 2003, it was the start of something special. Even today, Carling is synonymous with the competition.
September 21, 2016, 1:38pm
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This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

Speak to twentysomething football fans about England's third most prestigious domestic competition, and we can guarantee that a good proportion of them will refer to it as the 'Carling Cup'. Though it has undergone two rebrands since then – first known by the hateful 'Capital One' moniker and now going by the even more despicable 'EFL' acronym – the name of Britain's most disgusting lager has somehow stuck to the League Cup, and become synonymous with the tournament itself.

In one sense, this is down to habit. Molson Coors sponsored the League Cup for nine years between 2003 and 2012, considerably longer than any of their corporate predecessors (Worthington's, Coca Cola, Rumbelows and Littlewoods). Prior to that, it was briefly known as 'The Milk Cup', but that name was doomed to the annals of history after the Milk Marketing Board was sabotaged by the Agriculture Act of 1993. That means that, of all the League Cup's many liaisons, its relationship with Carling has been the most lasting. Still, there was something special about the Carling Cup, and it went far beyond our mere acquaintance with extremely fizzy, horrible beer.

First of all, the Carling Cup was doubtlessly the catchiest name the competition has ever had. Short, sharp and staccato in rhythm, it was wonderfully alliterative in a way that the try-hard 'Capital One Cup' could never be. It rolled off the tongue, swooped through the air and made sweet and melodious music in football fans' ears. It just felt right, somehow. It felt magnificently fitting for, in the cheapness, low-quality and relative inadequacy of Carling itself, the sponsor suited the third-rate tournament down to a tee.

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What's more, Carling was a brand that football fans could empathise with. Everyone has their own treasured memories of getting shitfaced on terrible lager before a League Cup match, while none of us have even the slightest shred of empathy with a company that specialises in credit cards and home loans. The Capital One Cup may as well have been the called the Financial Market Participants Trophy, so soulless and corporate was the impression it gave. We may not like Carling, but at least it has character. It's the character of carbonated urine, but still.

The brand was a comparatively minor part of what made the Carling Cup exceptional, however. More important was the character of the competition itself which, despite the reserve teams that populated its early rounds, was remarkably dramatic. This had nothing to do with Carling, of course; it just so happened that their nine years of sponsorship coincided with some of the most memorable matches the League Cup has ever seen. There were magnificent triumphs and stunning upsets, not to mention a fair few gripping finals. The Carling Cup became part of the intricate web of English football's central narratives, while also maintaining its status as the most attainable of underdog dreams.

The inaugural edition of the Carling Cup got things off on the right foot, ending with a final between two unlikely teams. Middlesbrough knocked out Everton, Tottenham and Arsenal on the way to the grand finale, while Bolton Wanderers downed holders Liverpool, followed by Southampton and Aston Villa. The final was an entertaining affair, with Sam Allardyce's underrated Bolton team coming up against a Boro side that included Bolo Zenden, George Boateng and Juninho. In the end, the cup found a new home on Teesside. This was what the League Cup was all about: a showpiece game between two of the Premier League's surprise packages, ending in major silverware for a club that had previously gone without.

Middlesbrough were far from the only underdog story the Carling Cup produced and, in an era when Chelsea won the FA Cup four times in six seasons, the nation needed David to beat Goliath more than ever. In 2005, Grimsby Town knocked out Spurs in the second round. Manchester United were beaten by Southend United the year after, and Coventry City the season after that. Liverpool were downed by League Two Northampton in 2010, dumped out on penalties in front of the Kop. That signalled one of the many nadirs of Roy Hodgson's time at the club but, unfortunately, that's what you get for starting Brad Jones, Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Ryan Babel all at once.

The most famous upset in the history of the Carling Cup was doubtlessly the 2011 final, in which Arsenal were bested by Birmingham City after a last-minute goal from Obafemi Martins. The unbearable cruelty of the defeat – the mix up in the defence, the routine finish, the ruffle of Laurent Koscielny's hair as Martins sprinted off to celebrate – only added to the angst in North London, gripped as it was by the worst trophy drought for decades. Birmingham would go on to be relegated that season, but not before they had hoisted the cup on the lofty concourse of Wembley Stadium. Meanwhile, Arsene Wenger was forced to watch on, a broken man. It was one of the lowest points in his tenure, and made for compelling viewing as well as a fair amount of footballing schadenfreude.

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That result, with everything it meant for Arsenal at the time, perfectly exemplified how the Carling Cup worked its way into the national consciousness. It was at the centre of some epic battles, tussles which spread far beyond the cup itself and into the very highest echelons of the top flight. It was the first piece of silverware that Jose Mourinho won on these shores, in an acrimonious clash against Liverpool that was played to the backdrop of the Steven Gerrard transfer saga. It witnessed finals between Tottenham and Chelsea, Chelsea and Arsenal, as well as several other titanic clashes. These went alongside the underdog stories and proverbial giant killings, and together they made a competition that was no longer just the FA Cup's poor cousin, but actually a gripping showpiece in itself.

With the end of the Carling Cup era has come a slump in the competition's fortunes. The last four finals have been tedious, routine affairs, even if the sight of Swansea lifting some major silverware was enough to briefly warm the heart. Their tale of underdog redemption was undermined somewhat by the fact that they had just thumped the shit out of Bradford City, the actual underdogs, who had gone on a great run that included victories over Wigan, Aston Villa and, naturally, Arsenal. The other finals have included one win for plucky minnows Chelsea, and two for happy-go-lucky overachievers Manchester City, the scamps.

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While this change in fortunes is, we repeat, completely arbitrary, it's hard not to feel that the Carling Cup years were a golden age. With the onset of the modern era, the League Cup seems to have lost much of its lustre, and been reduced to its natural status as an inferior trinket. It needs a true underdog, it needs a true champion, and perhaps this season one will emerge. Until then, let us cherish our memories of the age of Carling, even if we all agree that it really is a terrible beer.

@W_F_Magee