I’ll confess, the Checkatrade Trophy draw was the one I didn’t want. I had no problem with the other three teams, but I’d hoped ever since round one that academy teams would be eliminated from the competition by now.
Look, I don’t agree with them being in the competition but I’ve supported it anyway. I can see the benefits and I can see the pitfalls. I just didn’t want to face up to the fact a youth team could make the final. If they do, it completely devalues the arguments in favour of it. The ‘little club route to Wembley’ doesn’t hold up when some of the best young players in the world eliminated said little club with one game to go.
Some are saying our draw against Chelsea kids is a win / win situation. If we win the game, we’ve struck a blow for all that is good in our lower league set-up. If we lose, we’re just another victim of the cancer trying to kill our game. Only we’re not, are we? We’ve embraced the competition, most of us have, and therefore if we lose there’s no crying foul or spitting our dummies out. Live by the sword, die by the sword. We’ve supported this trophy and now we have to accept the consequences of that.
This isn’t another post debating the rights and wrongs of what has gone before, but in drawing Chelsea U21s we are indeed all that stands between proving one argument or the other, to a degree. Of course, nobody wants to see a youth team at Wembley in this trophy, it goes against everything we believe in. I’ve seen City fall at this stage before, 2-0 on aggregate to Port Vale, but there was no shame in seeing Vale go forward to the final, non at all. However, lose this and the showcase event is an academy team against, lets say, Fleetwood. Brilliant, a group of talented and privileged kids against the plucky lower league side. Okay, if it was Fleetwood it would be a heavily bank-rolled lower league side that have thrived not only by out spending their rivals, but also on the back of the FA-sanctioned demise of local rivals Blackpool, but a lower league side nonetheless. Let’s hope Yeovil or Shrewsbury get there instead, shall we?
I’ve seen Chelsea have played the likes of Batshuayi in earlier rounds, but something tells me that won’t happen again. The FA need this competition to work, they need the buy in from lower league clubs and seeing a £32m striker run riot in the semi-final is not what they want. We’ve won six games on the spin to get where we are, we’ve seen some thrilling matches, some hard-fought matches and some breath-taking goals. Players such as Elliott Whitehouse (pictured top) have kept fresh because of those matches. In truth, it has been a superb cup run and yet Chelsea could play four first-team players in the semi-final and simply blow us out of the water. Will they? No, but fundamentally that has got to be wrong.
Last season League One and Two clubs were fined for putting out a weakened side, those rules were changed. I believe strongly that when it is up for discussion again, U21 teams must mean exactly that. The trophy is meant to stimulate the growth of our young players and whilst I’m sure having an ‘English quota’ would contravene European rights, having an upper age limit would not. For me, if you’re playing an U21 team you expect to find 11 players who are aged 20 or less. It’s simple, right? If you buy a packet of white toilet rolls, you expect to find white toilet rolls within, not ten whites toilet rolls and an industrial strength blue roll. That might bring some parity to proceedings.
As I’ve said, I can’t see Chelsea playing anything other than a youth squad, they played the youngsters against Oxford and thrashed them. Remember though, this is an Oxford United on its arse with no manager. It was on Oxford side that have won just two in their last ten, lost 7-0 at home to Wigan and made three or four changes to their starting line up also. It’s also a Chelsea side that failed to beat either Plymouth or Yeovil in the group stages, they lost both games on penalties and only qualified courtesy of a 3-1 win against a weakened Exeter side. The one game that sticks out, the 4-0 hammering of MK Dons, is the one that causes everyone issues. That is when Batshuayi and Musonda both played, dealing a real thrashing to Franchise FC. There’s an irony in there isn’t there? Suddenly we’re talking about MK Dons losing as a travesty to the fairness of football…. hang on, weren’t they the team that stole an identity and a Football League place? Excuse me if I don’t shed a tear at them being hammered. If anything, I’m pleased it was them and not us, Yeovil or Exeter who Chelsea rolled out the big guns against.
On February 6th, Lincoln City stand up for football’s integrity. I know we’ve got our knockers across the football world for supporting the trophy and, should we lose, I know many of those fans will say we deserved it. However, very few will actually want Chelsea to beat us, nor will other football teams and deep down, nor will the FA. This competition has to have two lower league clubs at Wembley, it simply has to if it is going to retain the tiny particles of respect it has left within the game. If Chelsea win, then the last crumbling bricks of the competition’s integrity finally turn into dust and blow away. I believe strongly in the Mickey Mouse cup, AWS, LDV, FRT, JPT or Checkatrade Trophy, whatever ridiculous guise it goes under. I believe in the viable route to Wembley for League One and Two teams. I believe in it as a vehicle for fringe players to get a run out, I believe in it as a pointless exercise until you can smell the Wembley arch. I firmly believe in it and I always have but it will be hard to retain that belief if the showcase event is Chelsea U21s against anybody at all.
A week on Tuesday, the red and white shirts of Lincoln City have a chance not just to be my heroes, not just to be heroes to a packed Sincil Bank, but to strike a blow for all of the little clubs who Chelsea have eliminated or indeed any kids team have eliminated (not you MK Dons, you can get to feck). If we win ,we’re off to Wembley and best of all in doing so, we’re standing up for all of the teams in League One and Two at the same time (again, not you MK Dons).
I’ve been proud of my football club for a while now, but that will increase ten fold if we’re victorious a week on Tuesday.