Painting over the cracks?

Carlisle: a trophy in the bag, but what now for the Cumbrians?

Carlisle: a trophy in the bag, but what now for the Cumbrians?

After losing in last year’s Football League Trophy final, Carlisle returned to Wembley last weekend to triumph over Brentford.  While both still hold an outside chance of making the League One play-offs, however, both sides will hope to render themselves ineligible for next year’s tournament by gaining promotion to the Championship.  It is worth investigating the current value of this less-than-glamorous competition.

A quick glance over Wembley’s calendar for 2011 – which includes hosting the Champions League final – shows clearly that the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final is one of the less glitzy events to be held at the national stadium this year.

When the competition was founded as the Associate Members’ Cup in 1983, its purpose was to give teams in Divisions Three and Four (since rebranded as Leagues One and Two) a realistic chance of competing for silverware.  At the time, those divisions weren’t ‘full members’ of the Football League – the FA Cup and League Cup occasionally offered the opportunity for a giant-killing by those lower-league clubs that negotiated the early rounds, but a long cup-run was always unlikely.

Now, however, the third and fourth tiers on the English league pyramid house a wide disparity of clubs, including some fallen giants.  Sheffield Wednesday and Charlton Athletic were only in the hat this season because they’ve reached their lowest ebb of recent years; conversely, Stevenage were promoted from the Conference last year for the first time in their history, and subsequently qualified for this year’s tournament.

Because of the financial pull of the league, most clubs tend to make the Football League Trophy their lowest priority – for the smaller clubs especially, it offers no opportunities for a ‘David vs Goliath’ fixture, with some of the historically-bigger clubs perceiving the competition as derisory.

What many clubs overlook, however, is that cup competitions are for the fans.  Knock-out football can arouse emotions in the stands that league football simply can’t.  With every round successfully negotiated, the prospect of a trip to Wembley turns becomes more real.  There comes a point where the fans start to believe: “we’ve got a chance here,” they say, “you can almost smell the hot-dogs.”  Mid-table finishes don’t live long in the memory – a grand day out, on the other hand, is never forgotten.

Southampton: last year's champions, and on course for promotion in the current campaign

Southampton: last year's champions, and on course for promotion in the current campaign

10 of the previous 27 competitions have been won by clubs that now play in the Premier League.  Last year’s champions Southampton would prefer to be back in the top-flight, but their fans turned out in force in last year’s final victory.  After losing their last three finals in the competition, Carlisle’s curse was finally lifted and the fans will hope to use their glory to usher in a new period of prosperity.

Few Donny fans will forget the magnificent 2007 Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final in Cardiff, which precipitated a return to the second tier after a half-century hiatus.  Alex Ferguson once described the much-maligned League Cup as ‘a pot worth winning’ – likewise, the ‘Paint Pot’ has proven to be a springboard for success.

This article was submitted for publication in Doncaster Rovers’ matchday programme for the npower Football League Championship match against Cardiff City on Apr 9th 2011.

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