Despite languishing in the National League I still pay attention to the issues affecting League Two sides in the ever-increasing hope that we might be affected by them before the end of 2017. This week the controversial EFL Cup has come in for strong criticism.
The competition has had many guises, from Autoglass Windscreens Shield to LDV Vans Trophy and back to the Freight Rover Trophy. The Football League’s third proper cup competition has had man ghastly titles and even more ghastly formats. Calls are increasing for it to be abolished altogether as it’s current format attracts increasing criticism and anger. I’m not sure that’s the right thing to do, but I don’t believe it has a future if it carries on in the direction it has taken.
Firstly why I think it is important and why it does have a future. It’s being misinterpreted as an opportunity to give younger talent from a higher division an outing, whereas it should be an opportunity for league clubs to trial their younger players. Grimsby Town should be able to field a percentage of their academy side to give them competitive first team football. Youngsters from Chelsea or Leicester can go out on loan to a lower league side and get competitive matches, if anything this freedom of movement saved us our league status in 2010. Players like Chris Herd and Nathan Baker have had decent careers because they played league football at Lincoln. How many Lincoln youngsters didn’t get the chance because of this?
Do you know the only Lincoln game Sam Clucas featured in? A Johnstone’s Paint Trophy match against Darlington. We all know where Sam Clucas is now, and if our manager at the time had a little more foresight we might have reaped the rewards ourselves, not let our rivals cash in on him.
It goes back further. Lee Frecklington played two games in his first season for Lincoln, and both were in the Football League Trophy. The competition isn’t a back door for top flight youngsters, it’s an opportunity for lower league youngsters to make their mark. Of course it is up to their managers to spot their contribution which in Sam’s case was unfortunate because Peter Jackson was sacked the next day.
Did you know the Football League Trophy was the first silverware of Harry Redknapp’s illustrious managerial career? Or that the 2015 final attracted over 70,000 fans? This shouldn’t be disregarded as a Mickey Mouse trophy and it shouldn’t be treated like one by the FA.
When I think of the competition I don’t think of half empty stadiums although their were plenty. Lower league football isn’t cheap to follow, and the lure of seeing Chesterfield’s reserve side come and turn you over isn’t going to get the better of an important league clash. Football fan’s do not have a bottomless pit of money and it wouldn’t be easy to put bums on seats whatever the gimmick.
When I think of the competition I remember the Area Final against Port Vale in front of a packed Sincil Bank, or a semi-final against Wrexham when our dismal league showing was overshadowed by the possibility of playing at Wembley.
The early rounds can be tedious and relatively pointless affairs. For smaller squads there is a lot of pressure when the League Cup, FA Cup and a punishing 46-game domestic season all have to be factored in. I have no doubt that a coach ride to Fleetwood on a rainy November night isn’t attractive to officials, players, fans or club accountants. At it’s worst the competition can be expensive.
That is it can cost money unless you progress in it. I can recall the night we faced Port Vale in the area final in front of just under 5,000 Imps fans. We’d beaten runaway leaders Chesterfield earlier in the competition in front of just over 2,500. Both those nights it was worth opening the stands, but in an earlier round less the 1,000 saw us beat Blackpool 3-1. My point is that these games attract a crowd if there is a suitable reason. A match you’re expected to lose against a team like Blackpool doesn’t whet the appetite, but a local derby might and the chance of Wembley certainly will.
If the competition is to survive then the ill-fated academy idea needs to be binned off immediately. The draw should always be regionalised, even if Yeovil met Bristol Rovers and Cheltenham every year at least they wouldn’t spend a small fortune travelling there. A guaranteed derby match of some form would at least put another 500 bums on seats. My case point is the year before the Blackpool win we faced Mansfield at home at the same stage and 2,200 turned up. Keep it regional as far as you can and keep it local.
To boost the number of teams it should be contested by League One, League Two and National League sides. I enjoyed the match we played against the then non-league side Morecambe in the very first round of the 00/01 season. Lee Thorpe scored a hat trick in a scintillating 3-2 win. I felt introducing those teams could add a couple more local derbies (if regionalised) and of course more opportunities for younger players in our league. It would also give National League teams an opportunity to pit their wits against teams from the football league. It didn’t do Morecambe any harm did it?
It needs to be a clear and concise format as well with minimal games. There’s no TV money at stake and no need to saturate already heaving fixture lists with meaningless games. If you’re not likely to progress in the competition then one early season derby loss wouldn’t be a bad thing, not if you gave your youth keeper and centre half their debuts. However if you get through a couple of games then there is the lure of Wembley and that is enough for any club.
The finals should be staged towards the end of the season at Wembley. Both semi finals should be contested on the same day in the national stadium with the final played the week after at the same location. It would give a further opportunity for a big day out and the semi final format eclipses the ‘non league day’ format of the Trophy and Shield Final that has been successful for the last two seasons.
Finally, just make the prize money a bit more lucrative as well. There is never a shortage of sponsors for the competition so surely one of them can come up with a few more quid for the teams performing? Even if travel costs were covered and there was a bit left over for a curry on the team bus on the way home I’m sure some clubs would be happy. The happiest ones would be those travelling to Wembley because they’ve won three games of football and banked a five figure sum in the process.
In it’s current format the Football League Trophy is a farce. This week Luton Town replaced their goal keeper after six minutes as they didn’t really want him to play but he had to start due to the rules. The format might have been saved had all top flight clubs been instructed to take part, but there are glaring omissions from the roster. It is a confusing format that seems game intensive and simply hasn’t draw the crowds it might do. It has become the punch line to a cruel joke being played on lower league clubs, and if anything it shows a clear and unacceptable disregard for the issues facing smaller football club.
The plain and simple fact is that you will never ever regularly attract football fans to yet another competition unless there is a significant reason. Simple economics mean that not all fans can get to every game, and even at a tenner a ticket I can’t see Grimsby fans flocking to Blunder Park to watch an Aston Villa development side. If it’s a local derby you’ll get a few more fans, if the chance of playing at Wembley is realistic then maybe a few more will come. Outside of that there should be no further agenda.
Three matches a year against disinterested non league opposition are not going to help the next Wayne Rooney or Jack Wilshere with their careers. However the next Lee Frecklington or the next Sam Clucas might be sat on a League Two bench right now just wishing the rules allowed their club to play whoever they wanted.
Given their match with Sheffield Utd in pre-season I’m not entirely sure Humberside Police would agree with me that another local derby on the calendar is a good thing. I would imagine a few more than 1600 will turn up for the Mariners and the Blades a week on Tuesday.
I’ve made it through to the finals of the Football Blogging Awards 2016 and I need your help to push us over the line. There are a couple of ways you can register your vote. You can click on the link below and select ‘The Stacey West Blog’ from the drop down menu under the Best New Blog Category. All you need is an email address to vote.
If you do Twitter it couldn’t be easier either – just click on the link below to be taken straight to a tweet to vote
Please take the time to vote. This is a prestigious blogging award and for us to get to the final is amazing in itself. For a Lincoln City / Non League blog to win the main award it will take all of our collective input, but hey we made it this far so anything is possible!