Spare your sympathy for the League Cup. It has a massive live match on Sky Sports and a place in UEFA Cup as a reward for the winners. There are no such rewards for the Johnstones Paint Trophy, the first round of which was played last night. Started by the Football League as the Football League Trophy in 1983, it continues to suffer what could be described as “an image problem”. Perhaps it’s the less than glamourous sponsors. Perhaps it’s the fact that there are few big names that have ever taken part in it. To say that the competition is a complete failure, however, is some way wide of the mark. In 1988, 80,000 turned out to see Burnley and Wolverhampton Wanderers play a match that was pivotal in the near revival in the fortunes of both clubs after having had a wretched time of it in the previous few seasons. Big names such as Wigan Athletic (who, admittedly, weren’t a big name at the time), Birmingham City and Stoke City have all won it twice.
Nowadays the final is back at Wembley, and last season’s final was one of the more distressing events of the year, with football’s least favourite franchise beating Grimsby Town there. This year, however, is a clean slate. Crowds for last night’s first round were low, but not as apocalyptic as some might have imagined. The average crowd for last matches was in the region of 2,500, but the biggest crowd by some distance came at Elland Road, where Leeds United were playing their local rivals, Bradford City. There are, of course, some deluded Leeds supporters who still regard their natural rivals as Manchester United, but Manchester United have long since moved on and now inhabit a different footballing universe to Leeds. Bradford, just a handful of miles away, are much more like their equals nowadays. Both clubs were expected to get promoted last season, and both fell short. Bradford City freed up some much-needed cash through selling cheap season tickets, meaning an average league crowd of over 13,000 for their first season in League Two for over twenty years. Leeds United started with the “disadvantage” of a fifteen point deduction, but this was offset by the significant advantage of the peculiar circumstances of the end of their spell in administration of being debt free and being able to spend, comparatively big money on new players.
This season, the two sides have had differing starts to the season. Bradford started well in League Two, but slipped to a 3-2 defeat at Aldershot Town last Saturday – their first of the season, after starting off with three straight wins. Leeds United started the season as the favourites to win League One, but have had a stuttering opening few games, to say the least. They started their season with a 2-1 win at Scunthorpe United that required them to come from a goal behind with thirty minutes to play. Since then, they’ve had two good wins in the League Cup (away at Chester City and at home against an under strength Crystal Palace), but their league form has gone to pieces, with a home defeat by Oldham Athletic and draws against Yeovil Town and Bristol Rovers. Things aren’t exactly going according to plan for manager Gary McAllister and, although he remains relatively popular amongst Leeds fans, one suspects that this may not last too much longer unless things pick up on the pitch.
The tension proves to be to much for some, and crowd trouble flares outside Elland Road. A bus carrying Bradford supporters has it’s windows kicked out from the inside, and there are further problems outside a pub called The Peacock, around the corner from the ground. The police make twelve arrests but, with modern surveillance techniques, more are expected. As it turns out, the crowd, whilst the biggest of the round by a country mile, is a little disappointing at just over 20,000. In the modern age a large number of supporters are season ticket holders, and they are often loathe to spend even more on tickets for a match like this, which is hardly the most important of the season. One would think that more imaginitive clubs would realise the advantage of them of having a full house for home matches (for atmosphere and for revenue building from merchandise and food sales), but Ken Bates doesn’t work like that, so Elland Road is half-empty tonight.
Leeds start strongly, and it doesn’t take long before they take the lead. They’ve already shaved the outside of the post when, after seven minutes, Paul McLaren handles and Andy Robinson scores the resulting penalty. Fifteen minutes later, Bradford have the ball in the Leeds net, but it’s all for nothing. Daley’s tap in on the goal line after a scramble is disallowed for offside. For his protests, Bradford manager Stuart McCall is booked for dissent. On the half-hour mark, Leeds’ injured forward Enoch Showunmi is replaced by the Argentinian Luciano Becchio. It proves to be one of the turning points of the match. City continue to battle back, but Barry Conlon’s header across goal is a bad miss, and Bradford are showing signs of tiring just before half-time when Andy Robinson’s shot hits the crossbar. It’s a brief respite only for Bradford, though, and with three minutes left of the first half, Becchio is left unmarked from Robert Snodgrass’ free kick, and he heads a simple goal to double Leeds’ advantage. The second half sees Leeds press on to try and kill the game off once and for all, and they come close to managing this when Frazer Richardson’s shot hits the post. With just under twenty minutes to play, however, Bradford claw their way back into proceedings. Omar Daley gets the ball to the Leeds byline and cuts the ball back for Kyle Nix to pull one back. Although Bradford huff and puff, there’s no way back into the game for them, and Leeds hold on comfortably for a 2-1 win.
So, a second round place for Leeds United, and disappointing night for Bradford City, whose place in the current West Yorkshire scheme of things is reaffirmed. To make matters worse, their travelling support – over 4,000 of them – are left inside Elland Road for twenty minutes after the match as the police seek to disperse the crowd outside the ground and diffuse any trouble that may be hiding around the corner. They’re only partially successful in doing this, and reports of scuffles around the city centre continue into the night. For the Johnstones Paint Trophy, though, it has been a successful evening. A crowd of over 20,000 for a first round match in any competition isn’t a bad result, and those running the competition will be keeping their fingers crossed that Leeds continue to progress in the competition, even if some of the rest of us have more mixed opinions. It might not be the Champions League, but there might just be life in the Johnstones Paint Trophy yet.