New-look League Cup to be group format

Celtic are the holders of the League Cup
Celtic are the holders of the League Cup
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Radical plans to revitalise the League Cup have been given the thumbs-up by Evening News football columnists Michael Weir and Gary Mackay.

From summer 2016, the competition will kick off with a group format, which will be played in July. A four-year deal has been struck with BT Sport, who will become the tournament’s broadcast partner, showing 13 matches live per season and making the League Cup more lucrative. The new set-up also allows for the Premiership to have a two-weekend winter break in January 2017.

The 40 first-round contestants will be comprised of all 38 SPFL teams not involved in Europe, as well as the Lowland and Highland League champions. They will be split into eight five-team sections, and will be seeded, meaning most groups will comprise of at least one team from each league. It will not be strictly regionalised as the SPFL don’t want the same teams to draw each other year after year, but will instead be loosely regionalised, which means there will be no chance, for instance, of Annan Athletic being drawn against Elgin City. The five teams in each group will play each other on a round-robin basis across specially allocated dates in the last two weeks of July.

Twelve teams will progress from the group stages to the second round: the eight group winners and the four best runners-up. They will be joined in the last 16 by the four European contestants and, from then on, the tournament will be played in knockout form, with the semi-finals and finals remaining after Christmas.

In a quirky innovation all drawn matches will go straight to a penalty shoot-out whereby the winner of the penalty shoot-out will be awarded a bonus point.

Mackay, who was given his Hearts’ debut in a League Cup tie against Ayr United in 1980, is excited by the revamp and believes the introduction of a summer group stage will encourage more managers to introduce young players. “Anything that changes it up a bit is to be welcomed because everything seems a bit stale in Scotland,” said Hearts’ record appearance holder. “I think it looks a good, exciting move.

“If you’re playing four games in a two-week period at that early stage of the season, it gives teams the opportunities to utilise their full squad in a continuation of pre-season, which means everyone, including the younger players, should get some extra competitive game time. Because one defeat won’t necessarily knock you out, it means managers will be more inclined to experiment and field young players.

“Having shootouts at the end of games is a good innovation as it should make games more open and attractive as teams will be less likely to settle for a draw. I also like the fact it’s loosely regionalised because that means an Edinburgh team is unlikely to be sent up to the Highlands or anywhere like that.”

Weir, who won the competition with Hibs in 1991, is also encouraged by efforts to give it extra lustre and believes the revamp will increase the chances of upsets. “The League Cup’s a tournament that’s been a bit undervalued for my liking, and sometimes gets lost in the middle of the season. I’m a traditionalist – nothing beats cup football for me, so I think it’s a great idea to give the competition top billing at the start of the season. I think most supporters look forward to the cups and they’ll really look forward to having the extra excitement of games like that in the summer just before the league kicks off.

“At that stage of the season, with pre-season barely finished, the lesser sides will have a 
far greater chance of catching the bigger sides cold. Early-season football can always throw up surprises. The lesser clubs will really look forward to getting forward to put in a section with a Premiership club. It’s a good thing for the Scottish game.”

Weir also welcomed the return of the winter break for the top flight. It remains to be seen if there will be a break for the rest of the divisions. “The winter break is definitely a positive as it gives us a chance to dodge some bad weather and also for the players to recharge their batteries,” said the former Hibs winger. “I remember we had it a few years back when I was at Motherwell, and it definitely had a refreshing effect.”