The women's league cup -- known as the Continental or Conti Cup -- returned this week to play out four postponed fixtures from the last round of the group stage, and there was little room for delay because the quarterfinals are due to take place next Wednesday/Thursday with only half of the last eight have been decided. It was the type of chaos we've come to expect from the often hectic cup competition, which began on Oct. 1 and is contested between all 24 teams in the FA Women's Super League and Women's Championship.
While we can muse about the "magic of the [FA] cup," there's something weird about the league cup -- a competition that spends most of its seasonal run off of the radar, confined to wintry midweek anonymity -- yet there is something joyous about the haze of the Conti, even when attendances range from 4,200 (Southampton vs. Reading) to 104 (Sheffield United vs. Aston Villa) during the early rounds.
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Ahead of the knockouts, let ESPN introduce you to England's forgotten cup competition, from its frequent finalists to minimal crowds that have been known to dribble down into double figures.
A unique selling point?
There is a collective look of confusion shared by those not familiar with the women's League Cup -- known as the Conti[nental] Cup for sponsorship reasons -- when you begin to explain the competition with "it starts in the group stage..."
To be fair, this isn't the response many would expect after admitting they didn't even realise there was a women's League Cup in England. The group stage itself could provide a sellable point of difference for the competition, but it's a clunky drawn-out process that has any number of teams in any number of groups. (Apologies for being vague, but because of the complications, the FA has repeatedly tried to retool and rework the group stage. Some seasons have seen three groups, while others there have been six.)
The groups themselves are rarely evenly divided, too. Initially, groups were intended to be broken down by regions, but the historically southern-heavy nature of the top two professional leagues has made for some wonky groups, including one edition where Durham were paired with Reading, which is some 270 miles away. (If you're English, that's a long journey.)
Even with smaller groups -- like in 2020-21, which had some as small as three teams -- there is still the need to fit in extra games before the turn of the year when the cup competition enters its knockout phase. This has meant that over the years, most of the games have been forced into midweek slots, thus heightening the need for more localized and regional matchups.
While this approach has helped clubs and their fans stay somewhat close to home, the quality of matches has unwittingly contributed to poor attendances and coverage. Worse still, the final used to be given an unappealing midweek evening slot, with few clubs keen to host a final that has rarely inspired the masses to attend.
More playing time
While fans and -- let's be honest -- the media have often struggled to be excited by the Conti Cup group stage, it has been welcomed by many players who are always itching for more playing time. As we've seen this season, teams like Manchester United have used the league cup to give minutes to bench and peripheral players, and it does remain a good competition in terms of meaningful time on the pitch.
However, there are issues with the midweek fixtures for those from the second tier who balance football with studies or work, as we saw a few years ago when Sheffield United were without several players who couldn't get the time off work. Indeed, there are a few stories of a similar nature each season, with some players barely making kick-off after driving directly to a game after a shift at work or some missing the coach altogether due to a too long away trip.
Yet despite the issues faced by Championship sides, players from the second tier usually look forward to their league cup clashes against WSL opposition, seeing them as a good chance to test themselves. The format is again an issue: upsets tend to be rare given the structure of the group stage, while an isolated shock win for a second-tier team usually comes without the reward of progression.
Complications and quirks
With so many of the matches slotted in midweek gaps, the FA tend to pair the league cup group schedule with the UEFA Women's Champions League so everyone's in action. It meant that when Arsenal were hosting Juventus at the Emirates, Liverpool were clashing with Manchester City in the Conti. Or when Chelsea were doing their victory lap after scoring eight times against Vllaznia, it was the beginning of a penalty shoot-out between Durham and Manchester United. (It also means that for the first season in its history, the cup has given a bye to those in European competitions, with Arsenal and Chelsea not even joining the Conti Cup until this month's quarterfinal stage.)
Ah yes, the Conti Cup group stage penalty shoot-outs...
The bureaucracy of the Conti Cup has also led to group ties with nothing at stake that are being played during the knockout phase. I was there, it was a strange and pointless match, let's move on. Yet there is something almost charming about the need for penalties, with the first four matches in Group A this season going to spot kicks. Or the never-ending shoot-out between London City Lionesses and West Ham in October that saw a total of 26 penalties taken, with the Hammers eventually winning 10-9.
They are moments that speak to the unusual and cumbersome nature of the under-loved cup competition, but that also serves to highlight what makes it so special and idiosyncratic. However, as an under-served competition with historically over-cluttered match days and little in the way of coverage even from the leagues themselves, the Conti Cup has often gotten lost in the shuffle.
Although the FA has increased its coverage with the cup with select games even airing (for free) on the FA Player, it's still a competition that lacks detailed stats and data: the football association has reasoned that the money spent on paying for Opta to cover it can, and does, go to more important places.
For all the expanded and laborious nature of the Conti Cup, it is a predictable competition that is all too oft squeezed in around more interesting events. Returning in the middle of next week for the quarterfinals, the semifinals will be played a fortnight later and the final slated for the first weekend of March. What is nice is that this is the fifth year the cup final will be on a weekend.
Now in its twelfth season, the Conti Cup has only ever had three winners, and they're the same three who have won every piece of domestic silverware available to WSL teams since (but not including) 2014. Indeed, had it not being for Liverpool's WSL titles in 2013 and 2014, you would have to go back to the 2011-12 FA Cup final, when Birmingham City bested Chelsea on penalties, to find a time when Arsenal, Chelsea or Manchester City were not the victors.
Somehow worse still, before the 2019-20 final, only two teams had won the Conti with Chelsea never having made the final before their first triumph. Across the 11 finals so far, only six teams have ever featured, the three victors as well as Bristol City (2020-21), Birmingham City (2011, 2012, 2016) and Lincoln City [who became Notts County] (2013, 2015).
With over 80% of the tournament complete, the question is, once again, if the Conti Cup has outstayed its welcome or if it needs another rejig to maximize its potential?
The Conti Cup will be back on Wednesday for the first three quarterfinals.