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The WSL ContiCup – what is it and why should you care (or not)

Carabao? Get outta here, in this house we drink Continental Tyres

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Arsenal v Manchester City Women - FA Women’s Continental League Cup Final Photo by Action Foto Sport/NurPhoto via Getty Images

That general groaning noise you heard from women’s football fans across England this weekend? That would be the second round of Continental Tyres Cup (WSL league cup) kicking off. The men have the *Carabao Cup and the women have the *sighs* Conti’ Cup.

Is this going to devolve into an article shading the people at Continental and their fine vulcanised rubber wheels? No, it’s about the league cup which both giveth and taketh away.

Because the English love their cup competitions, it’s only right that there should be a women’s league cup just like there is a men’s league cup (just like there is some kind of parity [not financial, lol] between the FA Cups). The way the Conti Cup differs is it starts out with a group phase (which itself was scrapped for one glorious year before being reintroduced).

The issues

It’s regional, but also not super duper regional because of the lack of even spread across the two tiers. This year is slightly better, unlike last when Reading were in the same group as Durham, the 520 mile round trip being substantial for British people. Birmingham City and Leicester City have both been stuck in a group with both Manchester teams and Everton (instead of having a more Midlands centric group with Coventry City and Aston Villa).

The odd number of teams in the second tier means there are an odd number of teams in the cup and as such one group only has five teams (again, better than last season as two had five and two had six).

It adds to awkward fixture congestion and frequently the games get whammed into a midweek spot. Whilst midweek games are fine for clubs in the top tier, it’s a different strain on the part-time teams in the second tier who can be without half of their first XI due to the player’s day jobs.

It’s a hard sell. It’s not a competition that gets people going. It’s in fact a competition a lot of casual fans will pass on, dragging attendance figures – and crucially for smaller teams, gate receipts – down. The lack of interest knocks on right through to the final which consistently struggles to get a strong attendance.

It’s predictable in every way. Now in its ninth season, the cup has only ever had two champions; Arsenal and Manchester City (and we’ve had three separate Arsenal-Manchester City finals). Whilst there might be the occasional upset in group, more often than not it’s just the best WSL teams that advance to the knock-outs, leaving the Championship teams to twiddle their thumbs.

Reading FC Women v Liverpool FC Women - WSL

It’s not one for the purists, with points for losing. Because of the jeopardy of having teams tied for points come at the end of the group stage, each match that’s tied at full-time goes straight to a penalty shootout. The losing team, for drawing, get a point and the team that wins the shootout bags two points.

Because of the composition of the groups, there are invariable dead rubber fixtures near the end of the groups phase, notably a couple of years ago when the two worst teams over the top two tiers played each other in the last round of fixtures. The bottom two in the group, with neither possible to progress, the match ended in a draw and purely for bureaucratic reasons, the two were forced to conduct a shoot-out to decide who would finish bottom. In a previous season, the two teams (again bottom of the group) had to rearrange their fixture (due to an unplayable pitch) and play it the weekend of the first knock-outs.

The coverage is poor. Whether from the FA, the clubs or the media, the coverage is consistently poor because of the general apathy around the competition. During the group stage, each match day will have 11 fixtures with little in the way of highlights of mainstream media coverage, it’s one of the hardest things to keep track of.

For Chelsea boss Emma Hayes, it’s not only the one domestic trophy that has eluded her during her time with Chelsea, it’s a competition she isn’t shy about voicing her opinions on. As she said last weekend, “I will say it again, get rid of the Conti Cup, get rid of it. Make more league fixtures, how are we going to get continuity? If you want the Conti Cup play it for the Championship, sell the WSL, why are we diluting our project? This competition, that competition… boo! One fucking league, it’s not difficult!”

The pros

More damn matches. Let’s be real, we’re addicts, we want all of the football and we want it always.

More damn matches. It’s not all about the fans, the players themselves want to play as much as possible and the extra matches mean just that, and the news only gets better for the fringe players as coaches heavily rotate for Conti Cup group games. As Man United boss Casey Stoney said earlier in the week, “Yes, we’d like more league games but for us it’s kind of the same because of the group we’re in, it means less travelling to play those games and it also gives you the opportunity to give players time, that might not necessarily have played time, it gives you the opportunity to try new things and to give those young players a chance.”

More damn misery. Because the winner is always either Arsenal or Manchester City, anyone who supports any other team (especially one that reaches the final, we’re looking at you Birmingham City) is in for some cup heartbreak.

Karen Bardsley celebrated with a tyre. You’re just going to have to take my word on this. In 2016 when the final was held at City’s home ground (The CFA), because the tournament is sponsored by a tyre company, there were [for some reason] a few tyres floating around on the pitch and at one point, Bardsley started running around with one.

The verdict

The novelty of the group stages has worn off and ultimately only benefits second tier teams so much. Revert it to a straight knock-out (and then part-time Sheffield United’s unlikely late win over Liverpool on last time out means much more) and be done with it.