The Football League Cup (and all of its attendant corporate guises) has never quite grasped the imagination of either fans or clubs.
Lamented today for the almost casual lack of respect it is afforded by England’s leading teams (despite this, of the 20 finals played between 1997 and 2016, 11 have been won by a club that also has a Premier League title success to its name), it does, at least, still prosper, something which never looked likely at the competitions birth in 1960.
It had initially come about when Sir Stanley Rous, the then secretary to the Football Association found himself involved on the games grandly titled Post-War Reconstruction Committee, a joint exercise by both FA and League to help regenerate football in Britain after the Second World War.
Rous’s suggestion had been the introduction of a knockout competition for clubs that had been eliminated in the early rounds of the FA Cup.
This particular idea never came to fruition (although the concept was adapted by UEFA to give teams that had been knocked out of the Champions League another chance of success in Europe via the overblown Europa League), but his idea was soon picked up by another prominent football administrator and, under the watchful eye of Alan Hardaker, the Football League Cup was launched in time for the 1960/61 season, it’s brief then, as it is now, to be a midweek tournament for all 92 league clubs to be played in midweek and under floodlights.
A nice little midweek earner for the clubs in other words, one that was eventually copied by the administrators of another sport in the hope it would give it’s lesser clubs a similar helping hand.
Leading clubs might treat the early rounds with disdain now, but in the tournaments early years they didn’t even bother entering.
The League Cup met with staunch criticism from within the game and media, with Arsenal, Sheffield Wednesday, Tottenham, West Bromwich Albion and Wolves all refusing to take place in its inaugural season.
There was no such opposition from within Carrow Road towards the competition and the invitation to participate was gratefully accepted.
The Canaries were, after all, exactly the sort of club the competition was aimed at, one that was ‘on the up’ and looking to boost both its coffers and profile.
Indeed, as far as Norwich City were concerned, Hardaker’s creation had come along at exactly the right time.
The Canaries famous run to the FA Cup semi-finals had ended barely 18 months earlier, whilst the following season had seen them promoted to the Second Division. A now realistic chance of winning their first major trophy had been offered up to them, who were they to resist?
Progress was still tangible – the Canaries had even enjoyed a brief spell on top of the table at the beginning of that season, and, by the time 13,080 curious spectators arrived at Carrow Road for the club’s first ever match in the tournament on October 26th 1960.
Norwich had made a good start to their league campaign, sitting, at kick off, in third place in Division Two. Their second round opponents, on the other hand, Oldham Athletic were bottom of the Fourth Division, having won just four of their opening league fixtures.
A comfortable home victory was therefore expected, and that is exactly what happened, with Norwich winning 6-2 (still amongst their biggest wins in the tournament!) with goals from Bunny Larkin (2), Brian Whitehouse (2), Matt Crowe and Derrick Lythgoe.
A long, occasionally passionate love affair with the League Cup had begun.
After beating Derby County in the third round, Norwich fell, surprisingly, in the last sixteen to Third Division Shrewsbury Town.
Sweet revenge, maybe, for the men of Shropshire who had lost 8-1 at Gay Meadow to the Canaries in a league match eight years earlier, a game that remains their record home defeat.
Greater disappointment was to follow for the Canaries though, as a combination of dropped points against promotion rivals Ipswich Town and Sheffield United (only 2 points from a possible 8) and five defeats in their last ten fixtures saw what had been a very real chance of a second successive promotion fade into a fourth place finish.
Progress, unquestionably had been made under Archie Macaulay; said progress beginning to raise the profile of both him and his players.
It was hardly surprising therefore, when Macaulay accepted an offer from West Bromwich Albion (one of the clubs who had felt their lofty status had made entry into the League Cup beneath them) to become their manager.
The Baggies had made a good choice – 18th and struggling when he took over, Macaulay turned around their fortunes in the same way as he had done at Norwich, ending the season with his new charges in a very respectable seventh place in the First Division.
Macaulay left the club in very good shape, despite his sudden exit.
Quite apart from the FA Cup run, the addition to the squad of some quality players, the promotion to the Second Division and the near miss the following season, the club were in seventh place in the table as well as being safely through to the Third Round of the League Cup, the competition Macaulay’s new charges had, again, sniffily declined to enter.
Norwich had reached that stage of the competition with victories over Chesterfield and Lincoln City. Their Third Round opponents were fellow Second Division side Middlesbrough who were overcome 3-2; Jim Conway and Gerry Mannion adding to an own goal.
This set up a last eight clash with Sunderland at Roker Park on February 7th 1962 ,a ground where City had, just four days earlier lost 2-0 in a league game and a daunting challenge for the new man at the helm, Willie Reid.
Reid had previously been manager of St Mirren, a club to whom he had given 17 years service as a player, coach and manager. He had been selected from a shortlist of nine, which had, itself, been drawn from over 100 applications – proof, if ever it was needed, that Norwich were going places, with interest and the quality of applicant being surprisingly high.
Reid had been in the job for just less than two months when the Sunderland games came around, and, following the league defeat, made one change to the team for the cup match, dropping Jimmy Conway (Macaulay’s penultimate signing for the club) and bringing in Ollie Burton as his replacement.
Burton, another Macaulay signing had joined the club the previous March, primarily as cover and competition for Derrick Lythgoe and Brian Whitehouse as Macaulay sought to find a dependable partner in attack for the peerless Terry Allcock.
Burton only made three appearances in his first season at the club and the Sunderland game was his first of the 1961/62 season.
It was fitting, therefore, that he repaid his new manager’s faith in him by scoring as Norwich upset the odds by winning 4-1, with Lythgoe, Hill and McCrohan the other scorers. That was good enough for Reid who picked Burton for the all, bar one, of the clubs league and cup fixtures until the end of the season.
Macaulay’s team therefore had, under the management of Reid, reached the semi-finals of a major domestic trophy for the second time in three years. Sadly, there was to be no final at Wembley – the tournament wasn’t even taken THAT seriously by the Football League until 1967 when West Bromwich Albion (with Macaulay long gone) lost to Queens Park Rangers.
For now, the semi-finals, like the final, were played on a two-legged basis, home and away with Norwich drawing Blackpool, then in the First Division, with the first leg to be played at Carrow Road.
Norwich fans were not, therefore able to say they were “90 minutes from Wembley” – it was more a case of the Canaries being “180 minutes from being back at Carrow Road and either Spotland or Ewood Park”; with Rochdale and Blackburn Rovers (also in the First Division at the time) contesting the other semi.
Naturally, every newspaper, TV and radio show, newsreel and pundit predicted that the two ‘big’ clubs would meet in the final, giving the tournament its first real kudos and feel that it was worthy of its place in the English football calendar.
And you can bet your season ticket the Football League wanted a Blackpool versus Blackburn Rovers final – a case of warm and cold balls in the old velvet bag when the draw was made perhaps?
Intended or not, the semi-final draw did not result in the final that everyone (apart from Norwich and Rochdale fans) wanted to see.
The clash of two first division sides would have given the competition credibility and value, maybe resulting in other leading teams deciding to participate during the following season.
The previous season’s final, the first in the tournaments history, had seen a top flight finalist (and winner) in Aston Villa, but their opponents, in a one-sided final had been Rotherham United then, like Norwich a Second Division team.
Their route to the final had been a two-legged affair against Norwich’s conquerors, Shrewsbury, another tie which barely got the pulses of the suits in the football league started, let alone racing.
The fact that Norwich and Rochdale had made the final with Rochdale being the first, and so far, only club in the English Fourth Division (or League Two as it is now) to reach the final of a major domestic competition meant the match and outcome was of little interest to anyone aside from the two clubs concerned and there must have been doubts as to the further sustainability of the competition overall.
The first leg was played at Spotland on April 26th 1962.
This was one of nine league and cup games that the club had to play in April, including a run of five in just nine days. The win against Brighton sent Reid’s men north for the first leg in a confident frame of mind if, perhaps, a little weary of body.
And, fashioned by Macaulay and hardened by Reid, the Canaries did not suffer a third disappointment in as many years, sweeping aside their opponents 3-0 with goals from Lythgoe (2) and Punton, leaving the pending second leg an anti-climax.
Five days later, and with Norwich, fielding an unchanged side, a goal from Jimmy Hill gave the Canaries victory and an aggregate scoreline of 4-0.
It was a comprehensive win, one which the ever professional Reid would have derived a lot of satisfaction from. Yet his understandable delight would have been compounded with a heavy heart as to what laid ahead for him.
For, despite the fact that Norwich had ended the season having won a major trophy for the first time in their history, it was not enough to keep Reid in his job as manager.
Almost immediately after the last game of the season (a 2-1 defeat at Middlesbrough) he left the club, a fate determined by the fact that Norwich had not only failed to build on their progress in the league the previous season, but had also flirted dangerously close to the relegation places, an unthinkable scenario as far as the men at the top would have been concerned and one which, at the end of the season was evidence enough for the board to decide that Reid and the club should shake hands and announce his departure.
It is a pity that the club’s first ever trophy of note should be overshadowed by the sudden departure of its architect shortly afterwards.
Whatever else people might have thought of Reid, he is still one of only two managers to have won a major trophy with the Canaries, an achievement that has eluded many of the more famous names that have followed him at the club.
Additionally, it is telling that, despite that maiden cup success, he paid the price for not improving on the Canaries league position, failing to come anywhere near the heights of the previous season and with the much cherished promotion that the club board was now demanding as the end game.
Promotion or bust. And never mind any baubles picked up along the way.
Might that be the case again this season?