31 August ~ "I see you've gone and changed your name again," Leonard Cohen once sang of the Football League Trophy in his classic So Long Sherpa Van. But like a flea-infested stray cat with sarcoptic mange and stinking of its own piss that's decided it really likes your back garden and, what's more, it's going to stay no matter how often you train the hose pipe on its scabby tail, the competition is still with us, being ignored by fans all across the English lower divisions.

In case you hadn't noticed, the regional first round kicks off tonight, and the sponsor's official competition website can barely contain its excitement. "It has been four years since the Johnstone's Paint Trophy first wrote its name into supporters' fixture lists," it explains with all the linguistic dexterity of a nervous seven-year-old standing up in class and presenting his first Show and Tell. "Since its beginning in September 2006, the competition has gone on to etch its name into their hearts as well, thanks to abundance of memorable action" [sic]. Though for most supporters the cup usually comes to attention around the semi-final stage with the question: "The AutoVan Paint thingie? Are we still in that?"

Of course the Football League Trophy was founded long before 2006 – its glorious tradition stretches all the way back to 1983, with a variety of glamorous companies having attached themselves to the coveted silverware down the years. These names have also etched themselves into fans' hearts, though maybe not in the way that companies wanted, but rather with a slowly pronounced, smart-arsed, ironic undertone: the Freight Rover Trophy, Leonard's lamented Sherpa Van Trophy, the Leyland DAF Cup, the Autoglass Trophy, the Auto Windscreens Shields Trophy, and the LDV Vans Trophy too (yes, I block-copied all that from Wikipedia). Rumoured to be up next in hitching their brand to this prestigious jewel, should Johnstone's Paint decided to stop "bringing colour to the beautiful game", are Rugeley-based Doors, Knobs and Knockers, and the noted Leicestershire leader in its field, Plastic And Rubber Parts Limited.

The format too has undergone more changes than Nick Clegg's Little Grey Book of Pencil-Written Principles, but you can only put so much lipstick on a pig before you decide that it's a waste of make-up, and really you'd be better off just slaughtering the shit-caked, noisome beast. Attendances are famous only for creating club historic record lows, and who could condemn Rotherham United fans for feeling less than thrilled at welcoming Lincoln City to the Don Valley Stadium this evening for the second time in a calendar month? The clubs aren't interested, and have had to be strong-armed by competition rules into fielding more than reserve sides. The profit potential is negligible unless your team accidentally goes all the way. And fans stay home until there's all of a sudden the chance "to play at the magnificent Wembley stadium and enjoy their own piece of cup glory!". That's the official site again. And that final exclamation mark says it all – they're not fooling anyone.

Can anyone apart from Southampton followers honestly recall who won last year? (Hint: the clue's in the question.) Yes, no doubt it's A Great Day Out For The Fans if they reach the final, though I wouldn't know, Lincoln never having played at Wembley. But really, who's proud to say their club won a trophy only third- and fourth-tier teams half-heartedly compete for? Still, on the slight chance I'm coming across as too negative, there seems an obvious solution. Cull this competition and merge it with the League Cup, excluding Premier League teams (who don't care about the League Cup any more than the rest of us care about the Paint Pot). This will make it a genuine Football League trophy between the three Football League divisions. The winners won't get into Europe, but compete in a two-legged promotion/relegation play-off with the team finishing fourth from bottom of the Premier League.

With this one move you could liberate three-quarters of the English professional game from a competition they don't care about, while revitalising the League Cup with the outside chance of a back-door route to the top flight. Now try and tell me that I'm wrong. Ian Plenderleith

Comments (24)
Comment by prnapper 2010-08-31 11:50:16

It was the LDV trophy which revitalised a struggling Southend in 2003/4. Near the bottom of the division, yet a new manager managed to get some stunning wins against QPR (then top of League One), Bristol City and our local rivals, Colchester. This confidence helped us with our league form. That season, we took 22,000 fans to Cardiff- and we lost. But it didn't matter. The confidence was there. Next season, not only we did get to the final again (losing again!), we went back to Cardiff again for the play-offs, which we won. The next season, we won the League One title. From that season, when we took the LDV Trophy seriously, came the confidence to grow and develop as a team. I say it's a great competition...

Comment by Lincoln 2010-08-31 11:58:26

I went to see Lincoln V Blackpool in 2001 in a game featuring the great Mike Newell. About 900 people turned up for that which was the lowest attendance of a season which saw us rumbling along at the bottom for most of it. However the only highlight of that dark season was us making the area final where I went as far as to buy a pair of new headphones to listen to the game over the internet in the university computer room. We promptly got stuffed 4-0 by Port Vale.
Not sure I agree it is a bad trophy. Most Premier League teams don't care about the FA cup until the final stages and in many ways the Football League Trophey is the lower league's FA cup. In the same way Man Utd fans don't much care for Man Utd v Exter in the 3rd round of the cup, neither do Lincoln fans playing Rotherham away. But move it on to the semi final and people care.

Comment by rckd 2010-08-31 12:48:09

I'm not a Rotherham fan, but I do write a few regular articles for their (award winning) matchday programme. I'm going to go along tonight, but I'm not expecting the same atmosphere or attendance as last time I went to the Don Valley - which was the League Two play-off semi-final against Aldershot.

Why? Well, I'm keen on my lower-league football but having a cup competition exclusively for the third and fourth tier immediately kills any potential 'romance'. You're either drawn against a team you're going to meet twice in the league anyway or a team a single division higher or lower than you. There will obviously be mismatches as there are still some relative giants in League One - but given that there are 48 teams across those divisions and that 16 of those are handed byes into the second round, it doesn't offer much in the way of potentially classic cup ties.

And I cannot agree that it is the lower league's FA Cup. The fact is, every club gets a stab at the FA Cup and will all gauge their own relative success. Some clubs across the land might be celebrating their first venture beyond the Extra Preliminary round which has just been played. The League Cup subdivides the pool of teams into an elite crop of just the top four divisions and subsequently waters down the fun. And the Football League Trophy cuts that pool in half and chooses the butt end.

Simply put - it's a 'lower league' competition but the realistic winners are all very big teams that have suffered a fall from grace, or teams that have come into some cash and are trying to buy their way up the league pyramid. Southampton fans will be glad for the silverware, I'm sure, but I suspect that they would have traded the trophy for a sixth-placed league finish and the scrappiest of play-off victories if it meant that they were in the Championship this season, making journeys to Bramall Lane and the Riverside. Instead, Victoria Road and Griffin Park await.

Can't believe I'm saying this, because I am a huge fan of cup competitions - I can proverbially 'smell the hotdogs' when my undisclosed team progresses beyond its most recent round. But the Football League Trophy - less than ever before - does not pick from a suitable pool of clubs to call itself 'lower league' - if Cheltenham were to draw Southampton, then it'd be a depressing journey to the coast to watch a match in a huge, empty stadium. I genuinely feel I could get more excited about a cup competition between the fourth and fifth tiers of the English structure, because at least no-one would be under any illusions - small clubs fighting for a small trophy. Which is absolutely fine.

Comment by Jongudmund 2010-08-31 12:57:53

Hmm, there's a lot of vitriol in this article and the good points seem to be lost among the metaphors for unwelcome crapness.

That said, the only reason Shrewsbury ever got to play at the old Wembley Stadium was in the Auto-Windscreen Shield final in 1996. We lost, but it was still, genuinely, a great day out. Until the play-offs at the new Wembley stadium, it was our only Wembley trip. It's unlikely we're going to get there in any other cup competition, or many seasons either.

Of course you could argue that we should scrap all cups and every competition except for the league. And then scrap all the rubbish lower leagues because "no one" watches those clubs anyway. We only really need a small premier league with the 'big names' in, don't we?

Comment by pebblethefish 2010-08-31 13:18:05

I've got to add my voice to the supporters of this trophy. My first ever visit to Wmebley was for Brentford Wigan in the 1085 FRT (WHY counldn't they have been called Freight And Rover) final in 85, my first ever visit to the Millenium Stadium was the 2001 Brentford Port Vale game. And even though we lost both (obviously), both ere great days out and a very welcome distraction from the fact that we're a team that are realistically never going to win anything else, multi-billionaires notwithstanding (come on mulit-b's, you've already bought Fulham, Chelsea and QPR - there's a spare West London side going, very handy for the airport).

And tonight it gives us a chance to play at Stevenage, which gives me the opportunity to cross off a new ground and visit my Mum, all in one. What's not to like?

Comment by Lincoln 2010-08-31 13:30:28

rckd, I wasn't saying it was the FA cup full stop, just that you can draw a parrallel with how the excitment builds for both as the stages progress. In my Sunday league we play a cup against the same sides we play during the season and at first it is a bit dull. But win two games and talk of being two games away from Sincil Bank grows. If you get to the final you play at Sincil Bank which for most of us will be the highest stage we play on. So grumbles of playing that extra game at the start of the season fade come December when you start planning your week around your next cup game that could see and your friends arriving in a suit. I dare say lower league players (bless em) feel the same about going to Wembley. Take away this trophy, proceed with plans to eliminate the playoffs, and Wembley is effectively ring fenced for the Premiership and teams competing in the FA Vase.

Comment by rckd 2010-08-31 14:59:33

That's understandable. And I guess you're right - if Wembley is a realistic prospect, then I imagine for the clubs and players then it would be a good thing - but you can see why so many clubs treat it with a sort of disdain to begin and then start to take it more seriously if they find themselves still in the competition in later stages. The fact that the clubs are so focused on the league means cups necessarily suffer - it's a shame, I admit it, because I love seeing my team progress in the cup.

I think the biggest problem is the format - straight, one-legged knockouts can just feel like they lack a bit of imagination sometimes - the summer transfer window is still open and a glut of teams are heading out the competition tonight. Perhaps regional mini-leagues/round-robins before knock-outs would liven the affair? Given that the draw is made in (loosely grouped) regional pools, there could be an element of 'regional pride' that could be harnessed in this way. Although I suppose this would only congest the fixture list further.

It's a tough one because the sad fact is that the competition at the moment doesn't whet the appetite of anyone outside those competing (well, more my opinion than a fact, but you see the point).

Comment by jameswba 2010-08-31 16:04:30

I'm sure it was after Birmingham City had won this trophy in 94/95, against Carlisle, that Paul Tait took his shirt off to reveal a 'shit on the Villa' T-shirt. The victory enabled Blues fans to claim that their team had 'done the double' as they also won the third division (or whatever it was called then) that same season. This is hardly a defence of the trophy, just a little extra proof that it does create its own memories.

Comment by donedmundo 2010-08-31 17:02:27

Was it Southampton? Do I win a prize?

Comment by imp 2010-08-31 17:35:38

Two free tickets to tonight's plum battle of the Lancashire teams whose names begin with M - Morecambe v Macclesfield. You'd better set out now, though, to beat the crowds.

Comment by shadsworth cloud 2010-08-31 19:52:29

has maclesfield moved from cheshire then?

Comment by mcrenaldo 2010-08-31 19:54:37

"The winners won't get into Europe, but compete in a two-legged promotion/relegation play-off with the team finishing fourth from bottom of the Premier League."

Who'd pay for the extra parachute payments? What'd happen if someone who was already promoted won? Or someone who would otherwise be relegated? Or someone from League 1 would the premiership team drop down to that league, or would there be knock on extra relegations from the championship? what if someone from league 2 actually managed to win promotion into the premiership and then were slaughtered every week, what'd be the point?

Daft idea.

Comment by Grimmer 2010-08-31 21:51:13

What the hell is it with people nowadays? Just because you don't like something the assumption must be that no one else does. That it must be worthless. Why not get rid of it?

3,000 people turned up at Southend tonight, over 1,500 at Rotherham and over 1,000 at Hartlepool (honestly as random a sample as I could manage). That isn't no one turning up and no one caring. It may be less than usual but, lets not kid ourselves, people still go to these games. It's still an extra fixture, a bit of income, a chance at winning something.

I'm a Carlisle fan. The competition has been good to us even though we tend not to win the finals we get to. I love it. Its presence is comforting. It is a welcome distraction for me even if the manager may play a weakened team. I'd like us to win it again.

It is the only cup competition of any worth we are likely to win. The top has two competitions out of our reach. Drop into non league and you'll get a shot at the FA Trophy. It's nice to have a cup we can win.

If you don't like it just ignore it. Move on. It's obviously not for YOU!

Comment by Grimmer 2010-08-31 21:52:05

Seriously. Can't believe how much this article pissed me off.

Comment by rckd 2010-08-31 23:18:12

I'm a Birmingham City fan (there, I said it), and slightly too young to really remember anything in particular of our double-winning season in 94/95 so I can't accurately vouch for aforementioned t-shirt. The Division Two/Auto-Windscreens double is generally cited in a tongue-in-cheek way of celebrating our glorious history.

I suppose I often forget that some teams get to enter this competition every year and it makes up a significant part of their calendar - probably more so than the FA Cup or League Cup for a lot of teams, if they constantly have the poor fortune of drawing tough teams in those competitions without getting any significant cash windfall.

As has been mentioned, I'm sure the prospect of Wembley beckoning will create a worthwhile target for a few teams in a few rounds' time, by when I'll probably be singing the praises of the competition again (I get more and more cup-feverish as the rounds tick by). With Southampton out already there is plenty to look forward to for a lot of clubs. I was one of the 1500 at the Don Valley this evening and enjoyed the match and will be making my best efforts to follow the cup as it progresses.

Comment by Lincoln 2010-09-01 09:23:19

After last night's game I am close to changing my view on the competition!

Comment by rckd 2010-09-01 10:30:13

Ha. Did you go last night, at all? I didn't think it was a bad game. My friend (who was doing the commentary for the Millers' website, and offered me a go on the co-commentary which I politely declined as I didn't know any of the players' names - though in hindsight I'd have been fine) kept apologising for it being woeful. To be honest I thought it was perfectly decent - I'm used to watching teams come to St Andrew's and seeing Blues try to stop them playing football - so it was nice to see the occasional bit of passing and moving. Ben Hutchinson looks far too good for League Two, by the way - should have buried his chance in the second half though.

Comment by imp 2010-09-01 14:37:02

Southampton clearly mounted a stout defence of their title. I wonder what their priority is this season? I wonder too what the one-off loss is for clubs like Rotherham, Hartlepool and Morecambe who have to bother opening up their stadiums for pitiful crowds, or for travelling teams like Lincoln and Macclesfield who are (thankfully, in Lincoln's case) already out? For the majority of teams this competition is just an added financial burden in perennially hard times. And from the playing point of view - aren't 46 league games and two other cup competitions enough?

Comment by Lincoln 2010-09-01 15:19:35

Probably finding a new manager Ian. I don't think a managerless Southampton losing to Swindon strengthens your case any. Shame you are happy that one of our only chances of Wembley this year has passed. For a fan of a team who have made it to the second round of the league cup once in 5 years and in the FA cup 3rd round twice in 11 years I am suprised you are concerned about the number of games they play.
rckd, couldn't make it so listened on line and judging by the amount of banter between the commentators it was not a great game. Not a lot seemed to happen during the game. Was good to have another game for Hutchinson to work on getting used to the team.

Comment by imp 2010-09-01 17:44:46

I don't give a rat's arse about a chance at Wembley. I care about the club remaining stable and solvent and in the fourth division, with the resources to challenge for promotion. If Lincoln get to Wembley via the playoffs or, ahem , the League and FA Cup, then fine, but I'd opt for automatic promotion every time.

This competition is worthless to me, and I resent the expectation that as a fan of a small club, I should automatically support a small competition. The Paint Pot is an insult to small clubs. It's a condescending sop chucked our way as a salve to try and compensate for the increasingly stitched up top levels of the game. That chance at Wembley is a bit of fool's gold dangling on the end of a distractive stick.

Is the idea of a three-division League Cup with a playoff promotion place against the fourth-bottom Premier League team any dafter then Morecambe playing Macclesfield in front of 700 on a Tuesday night in a Mickey Mouse competition? To address some of those concerns – if a division 3 or 4 team won the reformed League Cup and then beat a Premier League team over two legs I'd say, yes, they deserve to play in the Premier League (with knock-on relegations). Probably more practical, though, would be to have them play off against a team in the division above. And let's face it, if there was a chance of a promotion playoff, the Championship teams would be taking this competition very seriously, so it probably wouldn't arise.

If an already promoted team won the Cup, no need for the playoff, they just get the extra prize money above their promotion rivals to help them prepare for the next season.

It would be nice to bring back some element of surprise and chance. Still, don't sweat it, the monopolist bellyachers in the top flight would never sanction it anyway. But I don't see what's wrong with more fluid movement between the divisions and a more imaginative approach to discussing the domestic calendar – in previous columns I've advocated reducing the Premier League to 18 teams, and abolishing the League Cup and FA Cup replays, so that the England team (and many Premier League players) don't look quite so knackered every time they step out at a World Cup. As we know, they do it in Germany, and we also know that Germany are quite good.

Comment by Lincoln 2010-09-02 16:15:41

Seems to be more of an arguement against the establishment and the JPT just forms part of the upset. I for one would like the excitement of getting to a cup final rather than another dreary trudge along the lower end of the table. Automatic promotion is great and then you are faced with another drudge along the lower end of the season. League football is the bread and butter, but it is nice to have a bit of light relief. But I accept that others may feel differently.
There are many reasons Germany are currently better than England, I think playing 4 less league games a season is quite low down in those reasons, but the JPT is not to blame for England's relatively poor show in summer.

Comment by imp 2010-09-03 02:37:38

And I didn't say that it is - just wanted to illustrate the point that there's little or no creative thinking when it comes to reforming the English domestic calendar. And re. Germany - four league games less is quite a significant number (it effectively takes out the need for midweek league matches), and then take away League Cup games and a reduced number of FA Cup games, and Germany's top players generally play around 10 games a season less than their English counterparts. At international level, it shows.

Comment by madmickyf 2010-09-03 05:23:13

As a Luton fan I say keep it. Even though we can't compete in it at the moment we won it 2 years ago in the same season that we were evicted from the League courtesy of a 30 point millstone around our necks. It was the only ray of sunshine for us in what was a stillborn season, we ended up taking 40,000 fans to Wembley and had a great time booing that buffoon Mawhinney!

Comment by Grimmer 2010-09-04 10:52:50

How on earth does a discussion about the JPT become about comparisons between the German and English national teams?

To be honest I don't want "creative thinking" about reforming the English domestic calender. I'm quite happy with the league structure as it is. Why the assumption that we need change?

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