29 January ~ As the local evening paper put it, "Shefki Kuqi raced in front of his marker to powerfully nod home” the goal that confirmed victory over Bradford City and sent Oldham Athletic into the Johnstone's Paint Trophy northern final. I was halfway up out of my seat in celebration before the thought struck me. This is the JPT and I watch goals with a sense of detachment, because tradition says I don't take the competition seriously. That has been true in the past, but the win put Oldham just 180 minutes from a trip to the new Wembley Stadium. I hadn't quite got around to admitting it to myself, but I was taking things seriously.
In the summer Oldham's prospects for the coming season amounted to a flirtation with the play-offs before being reduced to fending off relegation. Hopes in the Carling Cup were most likely to fall with the leaves from the trees – we'd be out by October. My ambitions for the FA Cup were to make it to the third round and get lucky in the draw. It was hardly surprising that the JPT wasn't a big consideration given that Oldham hadn't progressed to the second round for four years.
Johnstone's Paint have sponsored the competition for League One and Two teams since 2006. The company recently extended the deal until 2014-15. Not being involved in the tournament means that the effect of the regional structure in the early rounds, split into north and south, had passed me by. The sponsors say that the regional rounds produce a "pot full of spine-tingling derbies”, but that sounds like a PR take on football rivalries. This year the draw pitched us against Scunthorpe and Crewe, matches with little or no derby history.
Another consequence of the regional structure is that after the second round every match has the word "final” in its title. I had found that easy to deride in the past, but the seductive appeal of apparent quick progress soon takes over. With a bye in the first round, a single victory put Oldham into a third-round quarter-final. Win the semi-final and you're in the regional final. Although victory in that "final” does not bring the trophy, it does provide a place in a real final, with a real trophy at stake. The absurdity of a tournament with three finals soon fades away.
Part of the JPT's problem has been that the two other major cup competitions hold out the prospect of clubs facing teams from the higher leagues. Unusually this year, Oldham got through to the third round of the FA Cup and a match at Anfield. A 5-1 defeat didn't prevent me, and many other fans, seeing this as a successful Cup run, with every step along the way important and laden with the potential of what might be next. Latics fans were fondly discussing the last FA Cup visit to Anfield, a 3-1 defeat in 1977. The prospect of giant-killing, however remote, makes the task of the JPT that much harder.
My view of the tournament could be starting to look unreasonable, however. Seven changes of sponsor in 29 years has prevented the competition from finding a recognisable place in the calendar. Continuity from Johnstone's Paint should help to overcome that handicap.
Rule changes that encourage clubs to field stronger teams have made matches feel more significant. Despite the lustre of an FA Cup "glamour tie” the odds against a team from the bottom two divisions finding their way into a Wembley final are formidable. For a little while longer, that prospect realistically exists for Chesterfield, Oldham, Swindon and Barnet and that can't be a bad thing.
For the fans of these clubs, taking the JPT seriously brings the risk that defeat at this stage leads to disappointment. My well-developed sense of irony will offer no protection, not now it has been sacrificed. Whatever the outcome of this year's tournament it looks like next season's prospects of silverware will have a new addition. Brian Simpson