Friday 15 May ~
When Aston Villa "won" the Intertoto in 2001, Paul Merson was photographed openly laughing at the titchy trophy that commemorated the fact they had simply qualified for another tournament. Cups are too easy to come by in general. Until recently there was a sports equipment shop near where I live called Munich 72, its sign written in the style of the Adidas logo. It was opened, I would imagine, in 1971, with the most modern-sounding name the proprietors could think of. Alongside cricket balls, table-tennis bats and the like, they also sold trophies, mostly for darts teams and five-a-side leagues. I'm pretty sure that their window display used to contain the same cup that's given to the Football League play-off winners.
In a way it's appropriate that the League haven't bothered to get an impressive bit of silverware made for these occasions. After all, teams are being rewarded in spite of their not having managed to win promotion in the regular season. And it seems unfair that they stand to make more money from their Wembley trip and its various commercial spin-offs than the sides that finished above them in the table. So I can't see why they need a trophy at all.
When the play-offs began, they involved three promotion aspirants and one club from a higher division who had just avoided the drop, with a two-legged final. The team from the higher division sometimes won, as happened in 1986-87 when Charlton stayed up in the old First Division through beating Leeds in a play-off final third-game replay (there were no penalty shootouts then). The original format was retained for one more year, with fourth-bottom Chelsea going down following a semi-final defeat to Middlesbrough, who ended up getting promoted.
Since then it has been the sole preserve of promotion-chasing clubs. After Wembley finals were introduced in 1989, three sets of players now get to do the lap of honour that was once the preserve of proper cup winners who had played at least half-a-dozen matches on their way to a tournament final. Of course it's an exciting time for the winning teams and their supporters. I can understand the players getting medals and having an open-top bus parade through their home town. But a cup for winning three games? That can't be right. Carl Hawkins