After the euphoria of an FA Cup injury time winner at the weekend against Stevenage, Plymouth Argyle were brought right back into football reality by being forced to play in the Checkatrade Trophy, the footballing equivalent of watching grass grow. The tournament has, of course, been the source of much controversy since its inception in 2016, with mass boycotts leading to largely meaningless encounters being played out in front of some of the sparsest crowds seen in a professional tournament in this country since World War Two. And yet, the competition stumbles on into its third year.
It seems absurd that a competition that generates such a level of derision and apathy within its core fanbase should be allowed to continue running, but it’s important to remember that the organisation we are dealing with here, the EFL, is not a rational one. Commander Shaun Harvey seems insistent on making the 72 clubs involved subservient to the Premier League, and whilst his abhorrent Whole Game Solution appears to be dead in the water for the time being, he has all too readily accepted Premier League cash as a means of justifying the success of his latest farcical competition. This year, it has gone to the extent of using the cash to write of losses for clubs who know that profiting from the hosting of a Checkatrade Trophy fixture alone is an impossibility.
Led on social media by the Against League 3 campaign, supporters in their droves voted with their feet against the competition, as a mass boycott led to many clubs posting their lowest ever attendances. In that sense, therefore, the boycott was a success, and the pitifully low numbers at grounds certainly got the country talking. However, despite the absolute sham that was unfolding in front of them, the EFL incentivised clubs to continue with the format for a further two years. The Against League 3 feed became much less active following that baffling decision, with the sense that the momentum behind the campaign had been lost. Despite this, however, the mass boycotts continued, and they have indeed carried on into this year.
For boycotting fans, despite the fact that the prime objective of their actions appears to have ended in failure, there really isn’t much else they can do. Many felt the principle of a competition which belittles their football club was something they could never support under any circumstances. I include myself in this category, to the extent that whenever I find myself talking about the club, these ‘first team’ games seem to be nothing more than an irrelevance. Argyle lost 2-0 in Newport this week to confirm the team’s exit from the competition without scoring a goal, and it was difficult to feel anything other than complete indifference to that fact. In all honesty, elimination is almost more comforting than progression in the competition. After all, had Argyle made the final I and many others would have to miss out on a day out at Wembley through boycotting the tournament. In effect, the existence of this competition can actively lead fans to, with very good reason, want their sides to lose. Things should never be this way.
The problem fans have in this situation is considering what to do next. Do nothing, and this competition which belittles their football clubs is surely here to stay. However, supporters’ actions have so far failed to reach their desired end, and motivation to continue with these actions may be wearing thin. Additionally, it may be worth considering as supporters what we would like to happen to the competition in an ideal world. During the first year of the current format, many fans would have settled for a return to the original format seen back when the tournament went by the name of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. However, the JPT in its own right wasn’t exactly popular – I use the fact I have an away day in the competition under my belt, in Coventry in 2014, as a badge of honour if anybody questions my commitment to the Argyle cause. And whilst reverting back to the original format would undoubtedly see an attendance boost in the short term, there is a view amongst many that the current fiasco has damaged the competition as a concept beyond repair.
It’s also worth noting that, even if all fans are in agreement as to what they’d like to happen, getting that message to the EFL could be an altogether trickier prospect. As we’ve already alluded to, the organisation are hardly receptive to the fans’ needs – in 2016/17 the EFL pointed to a high attendance at the final as an example of how the competition reform had been a success, conveniently failing to mention that Coventry City and Oxford United contended that final, two clubs who were always going to bring big numbers to the national stadium. Boycotting supporters may therefore have to find another way of voting with their feet should the competition continue with its current format into next season.
Perhaps that could involve attending other local games on the nights of Checkatrade Trophy fixtures. Tiny attendances in the tournament no longer have a shock factor, but there may have been very different headlines had a fixture such as Bodmin Town’s thrilling 6-3 victory away at Newquay in the South West Peninsula League drawn more of a crowd than Argyle’s Checkatrade Trophy fixture against Swindon on the same night. Alternatively, supporters currently boycotting could take entirely the opposite route and embrace the competition, aside from any games involving Premier League reserve sides. After all, it was dwindling JPT attendances that gave Harvey the excuse to sneak this tournament in, and selling out Home Park for games against professional sides yet leaving it deserted when reserve teams come to town would send out a clear message that such teams are not welcome in our professional competitions.
Unfortunately, organising a movement such as this would not be easy, and whilst nothing worth doing ever is, encouraging fans to actively go to games in order to protest against the competition may be a hard sell to supporters with such apathetic feelings towards it, particularly with the much easier option of simply boycotting still on the table. It may well be the case that what we’re crying out for is a rare piece of leadership from the EFL, who have the power to put this competition out of its misery once and for all.