By Russell Kempson
Ever since the creation of The Football League Cup 52 years ago, drama has been at its heart. Many finals have produced the most unlikely of outcomes, with the supposedly no-hope minnows overcoming the odds-on top-flight giants. The climaxes of the competition have rarely disappointed, almost always providing fascinating fare for the partisan or neutral fan.
No fewer than 18 of the matches have seen an extra-time period, not all of them - in the days of the replayed final - leading to a decisive outcome. Five replays, one of them a second replay between Aston Villa and Everton in 1977, have been needed to settle the contests; a penalty shoot-out has been required three times. What is more dramatic, more nerve-jangling, than that?
The inaugural final in 1961, between Rotherham United and Aston Villa, set the trend. Not least because it had to be delayed, due to fixture congestion, until the start of the 1961/62 season; and not least because Rotherham took a 2-0 lead from the first leg at Millmoor.
Villa had a mountain to climb but second-half goals from Alan O'Neill and Harry Burrows drew them level on aggregate. Villa Park then exploded when Peter McParland scored in the 109th minute to complete the stunning comeback. And it would prove to be an exhilarating taste of what was to come over the years.
It was just what Alan Hardaker, the former Football League Secretary, had envisaged. The League Cup had been born barely 12 months' earlier - on 26th September, 1960 - following a proposal by the pioneering Hardaker as part of the "Pattern For Football" document.
The document suggested enlarging the League from 92 to 100 clubs, consisting of five divisions of 20 teams each, plus the creation of a new Cup competition to compensate for the ensuing loss of fixtures. The clubs rejected the shake-up but kept the League Cup.
From humble beginnings, the popularity of the competition soon spread, to the extent that several clubs who initially declined to take part in it soon joined in with the rest. They realised what they were missing. As Hardaker enthused: “If the FA Cup is football’s Ascot, the League Cup Final is its Derby Day”.
For six years, the two-legged final format continued. To Villa and the list of victors, the names of Norwich City, Birmingham City, Leicester City, Chelsea and West Bromwich were added. In 1966/67, the competition switched to a one-off decider at Wembley Stadium - and the first final there did not disappoint.
Queens Park Rangers became the first club from the third tier to win the trophy, recovering from 2-0 down to defeat holders West Bromwich 3-2. QPR were taken apart in the first half, with Clive Clark scoring twice, but goals from Roger Morgan and Rodney Marsh - a magnificent solo effort - restored the parity. Mark Lazarus then snatched the winner in the 81st minute, prompting the inevitable headlines of "Lazarus brings Rangers back from the dead" and "Lazarus resurrects the Rs".
Again, it demonstrated the glorious unpredictability of the Cup. And interest in it grew further in 1968 as the introduction of a new ruling awarded the winners a European place. The decision instantly made The League Cup more attractive to those few still abstaining clubs and, from that point on, it firmly stamped itself on to the football calendar.
In 1969, the "small fry" were at it again, when Swindon Town took on Arsenal, the previous year's runners-up. Like two seasons earlier, it pitted a third-division club against one from the first division. With Wembley having staged the "Horse of the Year Show" the previous week and, with heavy rain falling, the pitch swiftly deteriorated into a quagmire.
Swindon took a surprise lead through Roger Smart in the first half and it was not until four minutes from the end that Bobby Gould equalised to force extra time. Cue not the Horse of the Year Show but the "Don Rogers Show". The Swindon winger fired home after a goalmouth scramble and then, memorably, ploughed his way through the mud before rounding Bob Wilson to slot in his second goal.
It assured Rogers and his team-mates, playing in front of a crowd of 98,189, a place in Swindon's hall of fame. The only disappointment for the Wiltshire club was that they were not allowed to compete in Europe the following season due to their lower-league status.
Another epic - certainly the most physically demanding of all the League Cup final epics - took place in 1977, when Aston Villa needed 330 minutes to dispose of Everton. The first match finished 0-0 at Wembley, the first replay 1-1 at Hillsborough, after extra time, and the second replay 3-2 to Villa at Old Trafford, also after an additional period.
In the third-time-lucky attempt in Manchester, it was Brian Little who ended the marathon, concluding a dour if engrossing "triple-header" that, in total, had been watched by more than 200,000 supporters. Bob Latchford struck first for Everton but it was cancelled out by what was described as a "40-yard screamer" from Chris Nicholl. For a centre half, it was some strike.
Little edged Villa into the lead barely one minute later only for Mick Lyons, another rugged defender, to make it 2-2 soon after. It then fell to Little to loom large with the late winner to give Villa their third League Cup triumph, adding to their successes in 1975 - 1-0 over Norwich City - and 1961.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Liverpool's domestic and European dominance extended into the competition as they won a probably never-to-be-surpassed four consecutive finals between 1981 and 1984. But they did it the hard way: defeating West Ham United 2-1 in a replay, Tottenham Hotspur 3-1 after extra time, Manchester United 2-1 after extra time and Everton 1-0 in a replay.
With further victories - over Bolton Wanderers (2-1 in 1995), Birmingham City (5-4 on penalties, after a 1-1 draw, in 2001), Manchester United (2-0 in 2003) and Cardiff City (3-2 on penalties, after a 2-2 draw, in 2012) - Liverpool have established competition records of eight victories and 11 appearances in the final. Villa are the next best, with five League Cup wins, with Chelsea, Manchester United, Nottingham Forest and Tottenham on four each.
In 1981, The League Cup had become the first major Cup competition to bear the name of a sponsor - The Milk Cup - following a ground-breaking deal with the National Dairy Council. Over the next three decades, the competition went on to have a number of different sponsored titles - from The Milk Cup to The Littlewoods Challenge Cup, The Rumbelows Cup, The Coca-Cola Cup, The Worthington Cup, The Carling Cup and, now, The Capital One Cup.
Following the closure of Wembley for refurbishment in 2000, the competition set up camp in Cardiff's Millennium Stadium, where the final was staged from 2001 until 2007. However, moving from its spiritual home in North London did nothing to lessen the excitement of the fixtures.
In the first one staged in Cardiff, Liverpool overcame Birmingham 5-4 on penalties following a 1-1 draw after extra time. It was the first time a spot-kick shoot-out had been needed in a major English domestic final and secured Liverpool a first trophy since they won the same competition by beating Bolton Wanderers 2-1 in 1995.
Extra time was also required in 2005, when Liverpool revisited the Millennium, but there was no repeat joy for them this time against Chelsea. After the game had finished 1-1, Chelsea won in the additional period, in front of a crowd of 78,000, with goals from Didier Drogba and Mateja Kezman.
Since the final returned to Wembley in 2008, the closeness of the contests has continued, with never more than one goal separating the sides in five years. Tottenham had to go to an extra 30 minutes to see off Chelsea 2-1 in 2008 but, the following year, they succumbed 4-1 on penalties to Manchester United after a 0-0 draw. United retained the Cup next time out, defeating Aston Villa 2-1, before Birmingham stunned Arsenal in 2011 with a 2-1 victory, Obafemi Martins scoring a late winner.
And, yet again, the final of 2012 let no one down. Liverpool met Cardiff City, the Championship club, and the pair produced a rollercoaster of a tussle that ended 1-1 after the regulation 90 minutes and 2-2 after extra time. Liverpool only prevailed, securing the trophy for the eighth time, when Cardiff defender Anthony Gerrard - the cousin of Liverpool's Steve - missed the tenth spot kick.
Despite the proliferation of games in the Champions League and Europa League placing ever greater demands on the clubs' playing resources, the Cup has thrived and the crowds in the current era are at their highest for more than 30 years. Many of England's biggest clubs also use The League Cup as a platform to showpiece their younger players and, once again, the ever-dramatic competition is high on their list of priorities.