How to give the Women's League Cup more credibility
Sunday’s Continental Cup final between Arsenal and Chelsea delivered an entertaining contest for both those watching on BBC One and the record crowd at Selhurst Park - but this is a cup that remains in great need of reform.
Here is Telegraph Sport’s blueprint to enhance the credibility and profile of the Women’s League Cup.
Play the final at Wembley
The increase in the attendance for this season’s final compared to last term was impressive, rocketing from just over 8,000 at Plough Lane in 2022 to more than 19,000 at Selhurst Park on Sunday - a record for the competition. That said, such growth should have been expected following the sport’s rise in popularity since England won the European Championships.
The future ambition must be to stage the event at Wembley. That comes with risks and expense, but the organisers should aspire for a packed Wembley for a major domestic cup final.
The FA’s approach to the venue for the final has tended to seek steady growth. With that in mind, perhaps a 35,000 to 40,000-capacity venue is more likely to be chosen for next year. But if this cup really wants to be taken seriously, Wembley has to be the destination in the near future.
Bring the Champions League teams in earlier
There is understood to be a lot of discontent among clubs outside of the ‘big four’ at the fact that the ‘Conti Cup’ rules currently give any team competing in the group stages of the Champions League a bye straight to the quarter-finals.
To many, it devalues the achievement of winning the cup, if a team has had to win only two matches to reach the final. And this season, because of the way the draws fell, neither of the finalists, Arsenal and Chelsea, had to leave London during their brief Conti Cup runs.
The ‘big teams’ should enter the competition from the start for the reasons of sporting integrity and fairness. Three wins is not enough to merit a trophy.
The counter-argument from fans of Arsenal and Chelsea is that they have European fixtures to squeeze in and there are concerns around player welfare with over-scheduling. However, as Liverpool manager Matt Beard said in February after the semi-finals: “We’ve got squads now, in the sense that you can register 25 players, you can utilise your academy if you need to, so realistically I think they should be in it from the start or not at all.”
Reduce the number of group-stage fixtures
While some teams are playing too few Conti Cup games, others are currently playing too many, with the large group-stage format leading to a lot of dead-rubbers, which are hard for marketing teams to sell and have seen poor attendances this term.
One option would be to go to a straight knockout system, although the opponents to that idea fear some second-tier clubs would then be playing scarcely enough football, and the group stage offers a chance for youngsters to gain some experience. However, a knockout could look like (with 24 teams involved in the competition overall):
Round One: Eight randomly-drawn teams receive a bye, the other 16 meet across eight round-one ties
Round Two: The eight winners from round one are drawn to play against one of the eight teams who received a bye
Quarter-finals, semi-finals and final.
Alternatively, to ensure every team plays at least two matches, rather than the larger groups of four-to-five teams used currently, the following format could be used:
Group stage: Eight groups of three teams, playing a round-robin
Group winners go through to the quarter-finals
Semi-finals and final.
Championship teams should play at home
Several Championship teams are training full-time but the licence rules for a club to compete in that division only require clubs to adopt semi-professional status, meaning that there are still clubs and a lot of players and staff in the second tier with day jobs.
For that reason, travelling to midweek away fixtures is challenging for the Championship teams, many of whom have had to field depleted sides over the years.
So why not have all of the matches that see a Championship club take on a WSL team played at the home ground of the second-tier side? This way, the full-time athletes would be travelling rather than the semi-pros.
It would be controversial but another benefit would be to give Championship teams exciting home fixtures to attract more fans. It would also remove the need for the group stage to be regionally split from north/south, so we would not see the same fixtures repeating themselves year after year.
Longer term, what should the cup look like?
One of the challenges this cup faces is having 24 teams involved, a relatively tricky number to arrange into a suitable format.
However, there have been suggestions of expanding the WSL and Championship in the future. For the Conti Cup, the ideal size for both leagues would be 16 clubs in each, creating a symmetrical 32-team competition, from which the organisers could either:
Play a straight knockout from a round of 32
Or have eight groups of four, then quarter-finals etc.
That is one for the longer-term future, but this is a cup that should be adapted and protected, not scrapped.