CheckaTrade on Me

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I didn’t go to Blackpool away in the Checkatrade Trophy. It wasn’t a boycott, I just couldn’t be arsed. I felt like I should do something, or rather not do something but, conscious of the can of worms it would open, I did nothing. I let the bait swim past. Football fans come in all shapes and sizes, with all manner of views. Of course a lot of the owners of those shapes and sizes and views belong to complete lunatics but we’re still left with a broad spectrum of views even when you filter out all those idiots who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a computer.

Saying something often results in criticism, it’s the natural consequence of having an opinion. There are quite a few of us involved with this fanzine who have put our heads above the parapet, trying to do the sort of thing that has received plaudits at other clubs up and down the country but for us, only resulted in grief from our fellow fans.

It still needs saying though. We take the piss out of anyone and everyone including ourselves in this fanzine but we still care enough about football to get serious about it where we feel it is warranted. Note, we’re talking about football here, not Wigan Athletic. If you only care about Wigan Athletic and not football, then you are part of the problem not the solution. Like someone who only cares about the Premier League or their chosen Premier League club, this “I’m alright Jack” attitude is perfectly fine until you hit a rocky patch and then suddenly you expect the wider community of football to bail you out.

Football is a game. A game invented by people. A game played by people. A game which belongs to the people. Freely available to all. Quite how it became a ruthless billion pound business with a few grossly rich clubs/individuals dictating to thousands if not millions of down to earth, skint, working class clubs / individuals who struggle to make ends meet is perhaps one of the biggest scandals of modern time. But I suppose it’s no different to society in general in that respect.

It was last season that the footballing superpowers decided to get their grubby hands on one of the few things that poverty stricken lower league clubs still had left to call their own. The powers that be decided to change the format of the Checkatrade Trophy. Essentially, there was a vote as to whether to revamp this much maligned competition for clubs in the bottom two tiers.

Of course, the clubs impacted by this voted in favour of the changes, they voted for it to happen, so therefore nobody should really have any complaints should they?

However, they only voted for it to happen because they were offered an extra million pounds in combined prize money. A bribe, an inducement effectively from the Premier League (FA) to keep the Football League sweet. How kind of the Premier League to let a tiny percentage of the tens of billion pounds it generates trickle down to the clubs that need it most in a scene reminiscent of Oliver Twist holding out a begging bowl.

Of course, this financial dependency cannot be overlooked. In fact, the trickle down effect (or lack of) is again one of the biggest forms of legal extortion ever seen. In every town and city in this country, there is not one football club, there are dozens, hundreds, even thousands. Why is it fair that only one or two of the biggest of them gets to keep nearly all the money?

Because they earn it is the response, I suppose, and that people pay to watch and support them. Yet they have created this wealth at the expense of all those smaller clubs in the lower leagues and non leagues, all of whom suffer in exactly the same way Wigan Athletic do: thousands of football “fans” in their towns and cities support other bigger, more illustrious football clubs and give their money to the Premier League giants who promptly pocket it, use it to spunk even more money on millionaire footballers and then desperately scramble around looking for ways to make even more money to pay players even more.

So to the Checkatrade and it’s supposed benefits. Of course, for League 1 and 2 clubs, the benefit of the change is primarily a financial one, and the chance to watch their team play some higher league teams, or rather a team made up of their hordes of surplus youth and reserve team players they haven’t managed to punt out on loan to those self same struggling League 1 or 2 clubs.

It’s pure speculation but I reckon even without the inducement of extra prize money, the clubs would have still voted in favour. Not because they want to watch precocious young talent or a Premier League team in-name-only turn up at their ramshackle lowly stadium, but because they are scared to go against the wishes of the Premier League clubs. The bottom line is that the Premier League is too powerful to say no to, and they can do exactly what they like, whether lower division clubs like it or not.

PL clubs love to champion themselves for generously giving a tiny proportion of their revenue to grass roots football, yet see nothing wrong with paying £250,000 a week to someone for kicking a ball about. In their defence, they can’t put more back in as they have to spend all their turnover and much more besides usually merely to maintain their league position. Their income filters through from the club to the players and transfer markets, brokered by agents and because one club pays more, then the others have to match it or slip down the table. It’s basic market economics, football is not a charity. Yet nor was it meant to turn into a billion dollar behemoth.

As for the Checkatrade infiltration, it’s important to point out that Premier League clubs claim they are NOT doing this for their own benefit. No, they are doing it to help the national team! Of course they are! Oh, how generous and thoughtful of them to think of the national team, just as they did when the Premier League was conceived. It’ll help the England team they said, a more competitive environment for our home grown players.

And look how far we’ve come – our home grown players can’t get a game for most of the top clubs and 95% of players in the Premier League are foreign, and the England team has won f*** all ever since, coming closest in Euro 1996 before the gravy train had really got motoring properly. So that worked well. Or maybe that was the plan all along? Maybe the plan was all about money. It was all about a few people getting rich.

Whereas I doubt anyone ever got rich out of the Checkatrade Trophy, it is the desperate need for instant gratification at the top level and continued access to those riches that has spawned the latest round of changes.

“What do we do with all these dozens of precocious young footballers we have signed at great expense?” (or stolen from the lesser clubs in some cases)

“Don’t be ridiculous, we can’t possibly use them in the first team because they’re not ready”

“So how will our young home grown talent ever get the required career development that they need to be ready then?”

“Well we have an expensively assembled squad full of continental superstars we have signed at great expense, we can’t not play them either can we?”

It’s Catch 22 and the only solution appears to loan them out, but what proportion of these players ever comes back to become a first team regular at their parent club – 1 in 100? 1 in 500? 1 in 1000? I can only think of Romelu Lukaku or say Daniel Sturridge as players who were loaned out regularly and went on to become a top tier player, and neither of them ended up at the same club that they started at. One of the real breakthrough English players this year is Harry Maguire, who of course spent time on loan for us. But these are broadly exceptions to the rule and for those three, one of whom is Belgian anyway, there are thousands that get cast aside.

Is trotting out their youngsters on a Tuesday night at Fleetwood or Rochdale really going to make any impact at all on the careers of young players? Seriously.

And speaking of seriously, are they going to take it seriously? Looking at results to date, I’m not sure the PL youth teams are. Maybe they are too embarrassed to try and play well and win? Maybe because they are treating it like a reserve / youth team game they do not see it as a competitive fixture? Doesn’t that defeat the object of giving them competitive games?

Maybe they aren’t as good as their League One and Two opponents? Oh, I get it, that’s the point – it’s to make them better players! And it doesn’t happen overnight, they need competitive fixtures! But come on, this is a sham really isn’t it? Players only truly develop by playing for the same settled team and growing with that team, not getting chucked out in some tinpot cup three times a season against some lower league growlers.

The lines of demarcation are as clear as ever in footballpunditspeak, we talk of Player A not being a Top 4 player or Player B being decent at Championship level. We’ve seen this within our own club: Will Grigg is a brilliant League One striker but perhaps yet to be proven at Championship level. Both Grigg and Michael Jacobs are outstanding at our current level but were perhaps only capable against bottom half sides in the Championship.

I always felt that loanee Jordi Hiwula was the same two years ago – he scored nearly all his goals against lower half teams, thus making him a lower half League One striker – or perhaps a brilliant League Two striker. Dare I mention our other “Jordi” – superb in the Championship but struggled in the Premier League generally unless he was playing against say, Sunderland or Reading (and Everton!)

I’ve digressed again but players are players and the only way they get better is by playing regularly. Once playing regularly, they can be monitored and assessed for their potential for further progression. Chucking them into a lower division cup is going to make absolutely bugger all difference.

I suppose we will see first hand when Middlesbrough come to town just how the “big” clubs are treating it. If they want to give their young players more than three games, then they are going to have to try and win matches, even though the only stated purpose of the competition from their perspective is to “give them [competitive] games”

So what is the end game here? It’s early days to judge results but Stoke, Leicester, Southampton and Everton have all lost their first games whereas Chelsea and Man City drew their openers. To be fair, between them they have 40 squad members they have already generously loaned out to other clubs, thus they might be a tad short-handed at present

To go to the extreme, I would be highly amused to see a Checkatrade Trophy final this year consisting of Manchester City Under 21’s versus Chelsea Under 21’s as it would highlight what a complete f**ing mess they have made out of a small but perfectly formed competition. It would be perhaps the only way to convince the powers that be that it was an utterly bollocks idea in the first place and make them scrap it.

But then who am I to want to deny Wigan Athletic fans a trip to Wembley? Even if it is well-meaning short-term pain for long-term gain.

It should perhaps be clear where my principles lie given all I have written but what if Wigan Athletic did get to Wembley this year? I’m all for hard line boycotts to make a stand against the greed that is ruining the game but somewhat hypocritically, if there is a tasty away tie, a new ground to visit or indeed a Wembley final, then there’s every chance I will be there and admit it, so will most of you.

Before anyone jumps down my throat, this has always been the case anyway in the past when these games were attended free from the politics : one man and his dog attendances in the early round, pique of interest in the regional finals and two or three times our home gate suddenly appearing in the event of a Wembley trip.

And we’re not alone here. Somehow, despite early rounds littered with three figure attendances across the board in the early rounds, Coventry and Oxford mustered up over 70,000 fans for the final. So I don’t think I’d be alone in hypocrite corner should this joyous moment materialise.

Suffice to say I’ve been to more FRT / AWS / Johnstone Paint games over the years with paltry crowds on (though they only dropped to three figures once or twice, even at Springy in the mid 90s) and away followings of 2 figures not to be lectured at here about worthiness and let’s not get started on ticket allocations either.

The bottom line is that we as fans, and football clubs, will all suck it up and get on with it. There already has been a softening of approach now we are in the second year of the new format and it will probably continue, with the erosion of rights and power shift quickly swept under the carpet.

The fact that some Wigan Athletic fans were bragging about taking one of the biggest away followings of the round to Blackpool in a competition that many other club’s fans have been championing for boycotting should not be a source of pride in my book.

Yet, at the DW Stadium, I feel strongly enough to not want us to get a dismal crowd of under a thousand, where many will presumably use the competition as a barely concealed excuse to boycott. Which might imply that many thousands of Latics fans must also have been boycotting home early round cup ties given the drop in crowds for these fixtures as well in recent years.

And bloody hell, imagine how much mileage the internet banter brigade and rugby whoppers from within our own town are going to get out of a crowd of 896 against Accrington Stanley or Boro?

We know everyone’s circumstances are different but the bottom line for me is that as a Wigan Athletic fan, I want to see as many fans as possible at every game. The boycott option is the nuclear option ultimately, and to get a whole fan base on board with it, would be difficult if not nigh on impossible.

Other clubs have seen gates drop from 8,000 in the league to 800 in this competition but then I doubt in most cases more than 2,000 would have been going anyway, so the format change may have caused a 50% boycott but you will never get 100% as many football fans just want to watch their team, no matter what is going on in the background. See the current situation up the road at Blackpool for further evidence of that.

Some fans have stated they will just boycott the games against the U21 teams i.e. Middlesboro’ at home, which seems logical, given they were one of the uninvited guests, sorry invited themselves guests. But what if we played Boro Under 21s or any other Under 21’s team again in the final or the Northern final? It suddenly gets a whole load more difficult to resist doesn’t it?

We will wait and see what happens this year but again, it seems such a shame that a once decent competition has become a political football and another sad symptom of the derisory way that cup competitions are treated in modern football.

The Fifth Horseman

This article first appeared in the Mudhutter issue 64, you can still buy a copy online here:

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And if you want some more of our thoughts on the Checkatrade Trophy then you can find them in Episode 34 of the Pie at Night Podcast.  Stuck in the Middle (with de Zeeuw) is available now in all the usual places, or on the player below.

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