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