Living On A Thin Line (1st Leg)

by Martin Bull

Now the dust has settled and we’ve seen what the changes to the EFL Trophy mean in reality, I find myself even more exasperated than before the opening round of fixtures.

Unlike some football supporters I did actually care about the Football League Trophy in its many sponsorship guises. I’ve always wanted Rovers to win it and have genuinely looked forward to doing well in it. Last Autumn I even wrote two long paeans to the Trophy and gave the five reasons behind my burning desire for Rovers to win it.

I have some good memories of the Trophy, and not just the two times we were taken on a long road of discovery to a sunny afternoon at the final, sadly ending with defeats to Tranmere Rovers in 1990 and Doncaster Rovers in 2007. The latter journey included that magic moment when Sir Rickie of Lambert almost broke the net whilst Adriano Basso prayed to his errant god and Gasheads celebrated all day and all of the night.

Other golden moments include my idol David Mehew’s goal at Twerton Park in March 1990 which effectively put us into the final at the expense of our then arch rivals Notts County, led by an uncouth apeman, and being one of less than 2,000 at a freezing Brisbane Road in January 2005 when none of us wanted the looming extra-time on a work day, only to be sent unexpectedly wild by Lewis Haldane’s last minute ‘come from behind’ winner in the Southern Semi-Final.

Yet on Tuesday night instead of getting ready to drink in my weekly gallon of gas, I really didn’t have any passion for the match at all, and therefore for my own team, Bristol Rovers F.C.. That was an intensely strange feeling and one I haven’t had for a very long time. For a few lonely hours it felt like my beloved team were only a tantalising 25 mile drive away, but were just playing a reserve match, a pre-season friendly, or even engaging in a training session of mild intensity.

All my enthusiasm had been stripped away by the rotten decision of 67% of the Football League clubs, and judging from the online highlights it had filtered through to the match itself which looked more like an episode of come dancing than a rough and tumble football bout, whilst the backdrop of a new record low attendance presented a passing resemblance to a meeting of the local village green preservation society.

There is an old episode of ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ where our pompous but loveable hero, Anthony Aloysius St. John Hancock, presumes he can become the star of the local Poetry Society. Naturally it all goes pear shaped and as he is being thrown out of his own house he reels off some terrible poems in a desperate attempt to be recognised as a genius, including the classic, “It’s a funny old world we live in, But the world’s not entirely to blame, It’s the rich what gets the pleasure, And the poor what gets the blame.”

57 years later and whilst the abysmal prose may not have improved with age, Hancock’s point still holds true. Whilst the 48 lowest Football League clubs can be fined up to £5,000 for playing anything less than a “full available strength” team, there is no such sanction for the big clubs sending in their Academy teams. In fact you’ll never know what team you’ll be playing, and with a month between each group game and a transfer window that has just closed, there is a strong likelihood the Academy teams of August could be very different from the teams we’ll see in early October. As an example Reading’s Tarique Fosu had hardly taken his boots off at the Mem before he was being sent out on loan to Colchester United.

Thankfully only three Academy teams won their first encounters, but one stood out as an extreme example of opponents being a lucky dip. Norwich City U23’s 6-1 on the road demolition of Peterborough United saw a hat-trick from 28 year old Tony Andreu, who was signed for £1m, a brace from rising starlet Josh Murphy, who has nine Premier League and 63 Championship appearances to his name, and the single goal from James Maddison, reputedly signed for £6m. Andreu, Maddison and Harry Toffolo have since gone out on loan so next opponents Barnet will rather unjustly be facing a very different flock of Canaries in October. Those four players have over 160 Football League appearances under their belt, and Andreu has almost 200 more in the high end of the Swiss and Scottish leagues (if that last sentence isn‘t an instant oxymoron).


The 2nd Leg of this article will be played (weather permitting) later this week.

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