Change, choice and principles – The big Trophy debate

by Martin Bull

As some little West London team squirmed past us in the Football League Cup, our chances of silverware remain with just the F.A. Cup and the suddenly uber controversial Football League Trophy.

After 32 years of success, building swiftly from the inaugural final in front of merely 6,544 at Hull’s old Boothferry Park due to horses damaging the Wembley turf, to a record crowd of 80,841 just four years later for Burnley vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers, the Football League Trophy has been THE cup competition for the Third and Fourth Tiers; a rare, and genuine chance of silverware for lesser clubs.

24 different clubs have held it aloft, with three dominant wins by our noisy neighbours making them the most successful club of all time, and 16 more, Rovers included, have at least got to a final or three, which suggest it truly is an egalitarian competition.  Businesses in Carlisle brace themselves every year for a flurry of ’weekend off’ requests, as with two wins and four losses, no other club has been as regular finalists as the Cumbrians, who rather paradoxically are usually the furthest club from Wembley or Cardiff.

The Trophy has seen 109 different teams compete in it and has been graced by several fallen giants, including Manchester City, Norwich City, Nottingham Forest, Crystal Palace, QPR and Sunderland, although amusingly none won it.

Experiments to jazz it up a smidgen have been made before, notably with the introduction of a golden goal for extra time in 1995 (Marcus Stewart’s strike at Craven Cottage in January 1996 was our one and only application of that experiment), and up to 12 Conference teams allowed to compete each season between 2000 and 2006, but neither were particularly contentious.

So why is this season’s contest provoking so much ferocious discord?

Because this summer a majority of the Football League clubs voted in favour of a trial format where 16 Category One Academies were endorsed to join the 48 clubs traditionally entering. This academy category is currently only held by 24 of the biggest clubs, so the new format immediately led to accusations of the arch enemy (the Premier League) infiltrating the real leagues, and of a sly second attempt to normalise the idea that Academy teams could one day be playing Football League clubs on a more regular basis.

Some members voted against the trial, including our own noble club. Thankfully. I’m not sure how I would have phrased that sentence if they hadn’t.

The selection process of the 16 guinea pigs later added fuel to the fire, with 16 Premier League clubs originally invited to participate, and judging from the tight turnaround needed it seemed as though the Football League assumed all would agree. When many decided it was an offer they could easily refuse the Football League scrabbled around and just found enough agreeable Championship clubs with Category One Academies to make up the numbers, resulting in a so-called glamour tie of, say, Man Utd U23’s vs. Oldham Athletic at Old Trafford being supplanted by a trip to see Blackburn Rovers U23’s at a lifeless Ewood Park (yes, I have been there… it really is in dullsville).

The benefits are said to include more prize money, a shake up of a slightly unloved competition, at least one fixture played at the main ground of each Academy club, and higher attendances if the big boys (or more likely young men) visit your gaff.

Come Tuesday night we may find out whether supporters of the 48 will boycott all the matches to send out the largest protest signal to their club and the Football League, will shun just the tie against Academy opposition (or even only if it is an away tie), or rebuff none at all as that would hurt the finances of the club you have chosen to support.

There is no easy, or ’correct’, answer to the issue above, and some supporters feel brow beaten by the sanctimonious judgments of those with a very strong opinion on the matter, especially those who rank football supporters from hard-core (the best; I go to all the games you know…and have been doing it for [insert large number] years now), to casuals (the average; huh, they only rock up to the games they want to…) and then the plastics (the worst; go to the odd match at a big club, usually against other well known teams).

This caste system is hardly helpful as there are a myriad of reasons why many genuine, loyal supporters have to pick and choose which games they attend, be it home or away, or both. Some, through geography or illness, may never even attend matches in the flesh, but are they to be dismissed as even lower than the plastics? No. Well certainly not in my book. Any Gashead is a Gashead. Any Pirate is a Pirate. Who the hell am I to judge their personal situation or rank them in order of superiority?

Whilst in the Chelsea end last week I certainly witnessed what might be considered plastic conduct by several people, from stadium selfies to prove their existence, to a chic young lady exhibiting a high pitch scream the likes of which I haven’t heard since my wife gave birth, and animatedly bouncing off her seat at all the wrong times, sometimes even at a successful Rovers pass. Her group left at half-time.

Despite the ‘grumpy old man’ parrot on my shoulder telling me to sneer at this, I forced myself to think ’good on ‘em, at least they got out of the house, paid their £25 and saw a real football game, in a real atmosphere‘, even if it may have been partly through a lens or with modest comprehension. Societies change, even if it sometimes feels like it is for the worst. American educator and author Stephen Covey summed it up well by concluding “there are three constants in life: change, choice and principles”.

I’m beginning to feel that what individual Gasheads decide on Tuesday night is no longer the most important issue, but rather that we stick together as Rovers supporters and try to understand one another. By sticking together I don’t mean we all decide to go, or all decide to vote with our feet, but that we respect each other whatever side we decide to go to bed with.

Martin Bull became a Gashead in 1989 and immediately fell in love with Twerton Park, standing near G pillar. Three of his seven books have been about Bristol Rovers. ‘Away The Gas’ is packed full of over 50 years of ‘I was there’ away game moments, all written by fans, ‘Print That Season! – One man’s weekly meanderings throughout Bristol Rovers’ promotion campaign of 2014-15’ is the antidote to obedient season reviews, with none of the hindsight that most writers rely on, and ‘Double Darrell’ is similar, but chronicles the 2015-16 promotion, and is even better.

Full details of all are available at www.awaythegas.org.uk

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