The WSL league cup – sponsored by Continental – has been around for as long as the rebranded Women’s Super League (2011) but has remained an afterthought throughout its nine-year run.
Why the secrecy?
From straight knock-out competition to a group format, growing to incorporate the second tier of WSL (then WSL 2, now the Championship) and fighting with itself over what can count as a regional group. The growing apathy around the cup has only been worsened by the lack of information available this season, the Conti Cup becoming an enigma wrapped in a mystery, awkwardly kicked into a Wednesday night kick-off.
From a venue for the competition – that changes each season and has been the subject of controversy in the past – that was only announced this week (with the final next month), to the lack of published rules for the cup (would a draw in regulation time of knock-out games go straight to penalties or extra time? There is little information).
The Conti Cup is one that gets slotted in wherever there is room in the schedule, some seasons, kicking off before the actual league season, it will take up the odd weekend but the main bulk of the cup happens midweek. Never a competition that’s thrilled the masses, the midweek games almost seem like a punishment for the league cup, a dumping ground for it to die on.
There are usually no – or very minimal – broadcasts or highlights before the final, the interest from the media low, the attendance numbers suggesting a similar apathy from fans. Even when it comes to the final, fans vote on the cup with their feet, the average attendance for the final, a paltry 3,203 (and that is markedly dragged up by the 2015 final). Although it doesn’t help eight finals have only produced two winners: Arsenal (5) and Manchester City (3) and the two have played each other three times, notably the last two finals in succession.
The group stage, used to give the tournament more heft and harking back to day of smaller leagues and the importance of finding extra matches to bulk out the schedule, has become counterproductive. Now teams are playing more games than their small squads can necessarily handle, the part-time second tier is stretched to the limit and for those in the Championship a lone (but impressive) win against a WSL side counts for little in a skewed group that favours the pros.
Even when it comes to the quarter-finals, as we saw this week, both Aston Villa and Sheffield United were rewarded for making it out of their group with ties against WSL opposition in Chelsea and Manchester City. All four had played on Sunday and whilst the two WSL sides went straight into their recovery and regular training, the Championship players went back to their jobs. A full day of work or university was cut short for the trip down to London or Chesterfield, to face professionals and international who were fresh and ready and when the matches were done, they semi-pros would have to lick their wounds and get ready for working day on Thursday.
Midweek matches that pit first and second tier teams against each other the most controversial side of the competition – and why the groups have to be a regional and local as possible.
So who is the Conti Cup for?
The simple answer is the players.
For all the problems of the group stage, it gives teams a chance to rotate (although sometimes not by choice), peripheral players will come in and even development players will get minutes. Players, who always want to play, will get those minutes that they crave even if their bodies and heavy and tired. Championship players and teams – despite the usually predictable scorelines – relish the chance to play those at the top of the game in England, to test themselves and see just what it takes to be a professional. Even the WSL teams, if not right at the top of the pile, are glad of the extra matches to use keep working on themselves, to correct mistakes made in other outings.
Despite the overarching lack of interest from media and fans – but not all fans and media – the players will always want matches whether it be league, league cup or FA Cup, they want to play, to prove themselves, to have the hopes of reaching a final.
But in turn, the FA has to do right by those players and has to level the playing field where possible so that part-time players aren’t rushing to catch the team bus after a day at work and pushing themselves against professionals for 90 minutes after a full day at work or study. It’s the least the association can do.
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