The Football League’s Trophy Folly
Like Bambi on ice, the 2016/17 Checkatrade Trophy stumbled to something approximating an impersonation of life last night. A grassroots boycott of matches had taken hold and, whilst it didn’t – almost certainly couldn’t – reach one hundred per cent absenteeism, it surely accounted for significantly terrible evening of attendances on a bright, late summer’s evening, with no other football to act as a distraction on the television or a short distance away. The League Cup seldom gets a schedule as clear as this. And yes, this round of what this abomination used to be has never been known for sell-out crowds, but those reported last night belonged to the middle of the 1980s, not to football’s thoroughly born again age.
You can see how it might have felt like a good idea on a whiteboard, in a conference room, in a hotel, somewhere anonymous. The clubs are desperate. They all want to be in the Premier League, and they’re not. Some of them live hand to mouth existences. Others need millions to throw onto bonfires of wages, agents fees and other assorted vanity projects. Some have fallen from grace and are desperate to return to their former stature. But they all have one thing in common. In one way or another, they’re all desperate, whether to attain something or avoid something. And desperation can make otherwise rational people make unwise decisions.
Back in the wild and carefree days of the early summer, it must have all seemed so easy. “Sure, we’ll get a few dozen grumpy types, those “against modern football” trouble-makers who’ll grumble a bit, a few keyboard warriors. But at the end of the day there won’t be many of them, and these days it’s all about getting in the youngsters. We’ll draw Manchester United – we’ll definitely do that – get a full house, on live TV, and show the youngsters that football’s just as much fun here as watching the Premier League on the television. It’s a win-win-win situation.” Except, of course, it didn’t quite work out that way. First of all, most of the biggest clubs – Manchester United, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Liverpool – didn’t want anything to do with it, and a clutch of Championship academy teams had to be drafted in to replace them instead. What that said about the prognosis of the plans was open to interpretation, and none of them painted a particularly flattering picture of the Football League.
Meanwhile, there was a rumble of discontent in the background. Whether over Game 39, previous talk of attempting to crowbar Premier League B teams into the league system, or the cost of tickets, supporters have been feeling increasingly agitated in recent years. The Football League’s ideas of reconstruction were already being touted by critics as a potential backdoor entrance to the former of these, and it feels as though this step has had a wider reach than they anticipated. This hasn’t been helped by whoever was “managing” the Checkatrade Twitter account having a mild meltdown on the day of the first matches – note to companies: if you get involved in something like this, might be an idea to switch your replies off rather than, well, you know – and by numerous clubs that were taking part in it fielding vastly under-strength teams, and some of the academy teams fielding numerous young foreign players, which doesn’t seem likely to do the England national team any favours any time soon. So that’s that canard left hanging by a thread, as well.
There is an alternative explanation for all of this. It’s just a theory, but bear with it. What if the Football League didn’t really want B teams, but couldn’t really have that conversation for fear of stirring a hornet’s nest of proposed “reforms”, so proposed a fudge so preposterous that they could turn around at the end of it all, after a final between the academy teams of Brighton and Blackburn played at Wembley in front of 6,000 people, and tell the Premier League, “Look, this is never going to work”? They’d have to take a PR hit, obviously, but it would be worth it to get that matter kicked into the long grass for a few years. There are plenty who would say that to suggest such a theory is crediting the Football League with more intelligence than it deserves. But the PR hit has been big. International weekends always make for sparse times on national news desks, and with no Premier League matches this weekend there’s plenty of space for the sense of this whole experiment being a disaster – and that narrative is as important, if not more important than, whether it actually has, in material terms – to be filled with think-pieces castigating the Football League for its folly. Perhaps the Football League is banking on transfer deadline day guff swamping all of this, but even if this were true, it wouldn’t say much for their own opinion of their reach as a newsworthy body.
And all of this is over the Football League Trophy. The Johnstones Paint Trophy. Whilst there has always been some love for it over the years, there’s been just as much mockery. It’s not a comment on whether such mockery is justified or not to suggest that having fans turning their back on it yet embrace it in the way that feels as though it has happened speaks volumes about the extent of its failure. But who knows? Perhaps the supporters of one of the bigger clubs will get behind their academy team in an act of contrarianism. Perhaps it will blossom like a flower, with crowds flocking back after the nights start drawing in, or perhaps all the academy teams will be knocked out by the time that autumn is out. Who knows?
It’s a point that we have laboured on these pages before. Very few people actually believe that there isn’t a need for reform within English football. We also reached a point long ago at which the Premier League swept all before it, with the best hopes of changing the way in which that body works coming in the form of the negative publicity that comes only with empty seats and/or protests on match days. The Football League is nowhere near as financially secure as the Premier League as a whole, although its clubs are broadly in a reasonable condition in this respect. The Premier League is driven by money. Of that much we can be certain. But what is the motivation behind the multiple car pile-up of decisions that the Football League has been making of late? Why does it give such a strong impression of not giving a tu’penny damn what supporters think, when its clubs remain so dependent on match day revenues? There are 5.17bn reasons why the Premier League can afford to be high-handed with supporters. This isn’t a buffer that the Football League has to play with, and in acting like a Premier League mini-me it only seems likely to alienate supporters that its member clubs cannot really afford to lose.
Within the weird, hermetically-sealed world of professional football trust is important, and this is no more evident than in the relationship between supporters and those who run clubs and the game in a general sense. The Football League undoubtedly has some well-meaning aims somewhere in which it talks loftily of “the good of the game”, but they’re going to need to define what they mean by “the game” if this is the case. For decades, supporters of smaller clubs have been kicked from pillar to post and have shown remarkable forbearance over it all, from the ending of the sharing of gate revenues, through the formation of the Premier League, to the introduction of EPPP and now this, and that’s without taking into account the same issues over match scheduling for the benefit of broadcasters and rapidly inflating ticket prices that supporters of Premier League clubs are already all too familiar with. And that’s before we even take into account their proposals to allow clubs to vote on whether to allow Celtic and Rangers to join the English league system, which is a whole different can of worms altogether and a conversation for another day.
But just as that bond of trust has been repeatedly broken in the past, so it still seems to be happening now. There is no indication whatsoever that the Football League has been in the slightest bit interested in either the best interests of supporters or even in seeking opinions from those who will be affected by such potentially far-reaching reformations on the outside of their bubble. Rather than merely dismissing the extent to which people chose to not to bother with the first round of matches in the Checkatrade Trophy, they would be well advised to heed this warning very carefully. We’re still in the very early stages of the season. The nights will get longer and colder. There will be more competing options for supporters on Tuesday nights in a month or two than there are now. Last night’s debacle should prove to be a salutary and chastening lesson for the Football League. Perhaps the biggest single danger to the future cohesion of English football is that they won’t learn anything from it whatsoever.
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