Continuity and calculated risks pay off for lower leagues in Carabao Cup

<span>Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

It is a competition that gave Phil Foden the inspiration to name his French bulldog Carabao and one in which Trent Alexander-Arnold and Jude Bellingham made their debuts en route to establishing themselves as key figures for club and country. The Carabao Cup commenced at the start of this month with Cambridge United edging out Millwall, four days after the start of the Football League season and three before the Premier League removed its sunglasses, shook off its flip-flops and returned to our screens. That game at the Abbey Stadium went under the radar to most but it offered a snapshot of a trend that has seen a dozen Championship clubs exit the cup to lower-league opposition.

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The games were played out, of course, as also with the FA Cup, amid a backdrop of changes to teams’ regular starting lineups. For some clubs, it was a calculated risk that paid off. Blackburn Rovers, top of the Championship, breezed past Hartlepool 4-0 despite making 10 changes, with brothers Scott and Adam Wharton playing together for the first time, the latter making his debut aged 18. Others were left with egg on their face.

Luton made 11 changes but came unstuck to Newport County, giantkillers in cup competitions in recent years who themselves made eight changes. Sunderland also named an entirely different team for their defeat to Sheffield Wednesday, who elected to make eight changes. On Thursday West Bromwich Albion host Sheffield United, with changes a given. Only six of the 22 Championship clubs that arrived in the first round will appear in the second, though three matches were games between division rivals.

It is too easy to talk down the competition as the ugly duckling of English domestic football but the numbers suggest a more nuanced view is required. The 12 Championship clubs that exited at the hands of League One or League Two opposition made a combined 101 changes from their previous starting lineups and their opponents a combined 72. In fact, Cambridge of the third tier made more changes (nine) than Millwall of the second tier (eight). Charlton (eight to five) and Oxford (eight to seven) also prospered against Championship opposition despite making more changes than their opponent. The numbers are also skewed slightly by Morecambe, who stuck with the same starting lineup as they beat Stoke City, who made eight changes, on penalties. Sutton United were also unchanged but lost at MK Dons.

For Morecambe’s manager Derek Adams, it was a straightforward decision. “I just felt at this point in the season it was important to have a bit of continuity,” says Adams, who was reappointed in February. “We have players that have just come into us and players that have had only some of pre-season with us as well. If we made eight changes, we would be weakening the team and we can’t do that.”

Morecambe manager Derek Adams reacts during a match
Derek Adams opted to stick with the same Morecambe team for their tie with Stoke and he was rewarded with a victory. Photograph: Steven Paston/PA

For many managers, it is a chance to give others opportunities. “You can use it as an excuse to say that you’re rotating your squad, you’re giving everyone a chance and hide behind the fact that it is the League Cup and you’re not going to win the competition,” says Adams. “I have done it in the past. When I see managers doing it at this stage of the season, they want to keep everyone happy in their squad and they want to say they [the players] have all had an opportunity … You can maybe feel that the league game on a Saturday is bigger. It’s a difficult balancing act.”

The second-round draw has served up some intriguing ties. Stockport County and Grimsby Town, promoted from non-league last season, will entertain Leicester City and Nottingham Forest respectively. Fleetwood Town’s reward for overcoming Wigan, who made wholesale changes, is the visit of Everton.

Mark Hughes will pit his wits against Blackburn, where he played and managed, with Bradford City. Tranmere v Newcastle and Bolton v Aston Villa will be televised, which is worth £100,000 to each host club. For rounds three to five, television money is upped to £125,000. For most executives at smaller clubs the dream draw is a potentially lucrative away tie at a Premier League club given both teams take home a 45% cut of the gate receipts, with the remaining 10% heading into the competition fund. “The money side of it is very important, and not only for the football side of the business,” Adams says.

Some clubs simply have all eyes on the league campaign. Cambridge and Millwall agreed to bring the game forward in the calendar – as all teams were permitted to do – to free up this week’s preparations. Others discount the competition on the basis of the £100,000 prize money, small fry compared with the FA Cup, whose winners receive £1m. Many are wary of the schedule, with League One and League Two clubs guaranteed to play at least 51 games at the outset of the season.

Morecambe face Fleetwood on Saturday before trips to Bolton, Oxford and Rotherham, the latter in the Carabao Cup second round, inside 10 days. “We’re looking at nine games in the month of August which, in my eyes, is too many, so I understand why many clubs have made changes in these games,” says Adams.