Sunday 2nd April 2017 ko 14.30
Football League Trophy Final
COVENTRY CITY 2 (Bigirimana 11 Thomas 55)
OXFORD UNITED 1 (Sercombe 75)
A trip to Wembley is an experience to be savoured isn’t it? It ought to be the pinnacle of your club’s ambition, and an experience where you take in every moment as if it were your last. So why did I come very close to not going, or even watching it on television?
Unless you’ve been living as a hermit, you’ll know that for this season the EFL have added 16 Premier League and Championship Category “A” Under 21 sides, in a group stage format along the lines of the Champions League. Add to that fines for 1st XI’s playing weakened teams (in one game Bradford changed their keeper after 3 minutes to circumvent that rule), and penalty shoot-out for an extra point in drawn group stage games, and you wondered whether the EFL had set out to send the “Mickey Mouse” quotient through the roof.
It was billed as a one season experiment and many fans, me included were disgusted that the clubs, my own included voted to let it happen. It smacked then and now, and despite protestions to the contrary by the EFL, of an attempt to bring in Premier League B teams into the Football League by the back door. But even if this wasn’t an attempt, my gut feeling is that as an Oxford United fan I do not wish to see my club playing other teams’ reserves. Or putting it another way, if Premier League clubs wish to test their young players at Football League level then send them out on loan. It worked out for the likes of David Beckham and Jermaine Defoe didn’t it? From an Oxford United perspective it meant we couldn’t play either Toni Martinez or Conor McAleny, cup-tied with West Ham and Everton respectively.
The competition got the attendances it deserved. 274 watched West Brom’s U21 play Gillingham, and Oxford’s game at swindon got 2,698. You think 2,698 sounds okay? There were 10,658 at the League game. The boycott was universal, but there was one huge problem- the final was, as usual at Wembley.
Wembley is special, try asking a fan of Accrington Stanley who’ve never played there. Not watching us in the Checkatrade Trophy before the final was easy, the point simple to make, but when for the second time in two years we made the final, I and many others had some soul-searching to do. In the end I simply couldn’t look my elderly father in the eye and tell him he couldn’t watch the side he’s supported since 1946 at the home of English football. Did I feel guilty about going? Yes, and although I greatly enjoyed travelling up on the coach organised by our local, the Masons Arms in Headington Quarry. I tried to kid myself that the competition was a one-year aberration, and so I would be watching the end of a failed experiment.
I was naive. EFL CEO Shaun Harvey’s piece in the programme showed he clearly hadn’t been watching He talked about the giving “England’s brightest young talent the opportunity to gain experience.” He refers of course to the Premier League clubs’ sides, because his competition saw League 2 Luton Town fined £15,000 for playing their youngsters! Is he trying to kid the footballing world that young talent is only produced by the Premier League? Try asking Joe Hart, or Mark Wright.
Worse, he’s now claiming the bumper attendance proves the competition has a future in it’s current format! No Mr Harvey, please understand the attendance was due to the finalists being two bigger clubs based reasonably close to Wembley. Let’s imagine the gate if Swansea’s U21’s had played Morecambe. I object to my attendance being used as an kind of leverage to be used to keep this discredited format going. I walked out at the end feeling as if I’d been bribed. Shame on you Mr Harvey, a trip to Wembley should never be like this.
So Coventry won, and deservedly so. They wanted it more, and all the best to them and their fans as they suffer the agony of relegation to League 2 and the the inepitude of their owners SISU. Once again I watched our players glumly look on as their opponents lifted the trophy only this time I couldn’t begrudge them their moment.
You’d hope that at least this is the last time this final acts as a coda to this monstrosity of a format. I’m well aware that the old format was failing, and I’m more than happy to see the competition ended if that’s the only other option. Whilst Mr Harvey may have learned nothing, I’d like to think that the clubs he purports to lead have. They vote on next year’s competition next month. One would hope that if the 2016/17 format is rejected Mr Harvey would have the decency to consider his position.
“Ah ha ha, ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? Good night!” John Lydon, Winterland, Los Angeles 14th January 1978.