Monday, July 2, 2018

The Challenge Cup now does more harm than good

Twenty-eight years on, it's hard to believe that the Challenge Cup was initially intended to be a one-off competition, held in 1990 to celebrate the Scottish Football League's centenary. But it was hugely popular - the final between Dundee and Ayr United drew a capacity crowd to Fir Park - and it also provided lower league clubs with extra matches and therefore extra revenue. So on it went.

With top flight clubs ineligible, here was a bona fide shot at glory for Scotland's smaller sides. For Stenhousemuir (champions in 1995), Stranraer (1996) and Alloa (1999), winning the tournament is arguably their greatest ever achievement. When Caley Thistle triumphed in 2003 it felt like a watershed for them; they went on to win promotion to the SPL at the end of that campaign.

Had Dumbarton won this year, it would have been the best thing that has happened to them since the end of the nineteenth century...and given the support they got at the final, you could tell. Given that less than three years had passed since Inverness had won the Scottish Cup, this writer felt more embarrassed than delighted at this Challenge Cup win; it feels like this competition should be for those sides who have no chance of ever winning the biggest knockout tournaments this country has to offer.

Should be...but no longer. For those smaller clubs, the Challenge Cup is now more a hindrance than an opportunity.

For a start, there is now very little financial incentive for the clubs participating in it. That has always been an issue - in 1998-99 it was cancelled because no title sponsor was found - but this year Caley Thistle only avoided making a loss on their participation because they reached the final. It didn't help that two of their earlier games were moved to stupid o'clock kickoffs for Gaelic telly, but even then attendances are so low that there is a struggle to cover the costs of the match.

That issue was far from unique, and given that the clubs are getting guaranteed home games - and bigger crowds - from the League Cup group stages, there's less of a pressing need for extra matches anyway. Such is the potential for fixture congestion further down the line that Dundee United have already said they'll field a youth team, which is what they did last year.

Meanwhile, the players themselves are so disillusioned that, according to Arbroath midfielder Danny Denholm, it is referred to as 'the Jobbies Cup'.

It's easy to accept that there might be a need for change, but as per usual the powers that be have found spectacular ways of making the situation worse.

The first of these was to introduce 'Colt' teams - the under 20s sides of Premiership clubs - to the competition. Allegedly this was to increase interest, but it turns out that even the fanbases of Rangers and Celtic can't be arsed to go and watch youth players who they know will never get past hoards of foreigners to make the first team anyway, particularly if they are getting gubbed by League Two opposition.

On their first attempt, only seven of the twelve Colt teams got through the first round and only one as far as the third. None even made the last sixteen. So the rules were changed to beef them up a bit; two over-age players were allowed to play as well, allegedly to provide experience. The outcome? Even worse. Only six won their first game (one of which was against another Colt team as they were no longer separated in the draw) whilst none won their second.

So now the age limit for the 2018-19 competition is being bumped up to 21 in an attempt to make them more competitive.

Any idiot can see where this is going, especially on the back of the ridiculous document Rangers and Celtic got a twelve year old to write and send around League Two clubs last season that tried to impossibly spin the idea of Colt teams entering the SPFL pyramid at their level. If Colt teams do well in the Challenge Cup, it suggests they might not get turned over most weeks by savvy semi-pros in the seaside leagues and boosts the argument for their inclusion in said leagues.

The age limit is inevitably going to be increased again and again and again until it ultimately reaches "whatever age Kenny Miller is at this moment in time" and then the day will come when an international centre-forward scores the winning goal for a Colt team in the final and the league says "we told you how great Colt teams were! Now let them in League Two!"

And when that happens, it'll be at the expense of the league status of some current clubs. So, you could surmise, the Challenge Cup is actually putting those clubs at risk of dropping out of the SPFL altogether.

The SPFL's other 'cunning plan' (that phrase should sound like Baldrick's voice in your head) was of course to allow teams from the other home nations to take part. The explanation was that this would increase interest in the competition - though why Linfield fans would care about games against Scottish part-timers, and vice versa, is unclear to me. The conspiracy theory is that it is being used as a precedent for future cross-border competitions that might involve Scotland's bigger clubs.

Whether that is true or not, the biggest accomplishment of this has been to massage our egos by proving that the best that Northern Ireland and Wales have to offer is still below the standard of the Scottish Championship; the less said about the Irish league the better given that Sligo Rovers got punted out of last year's event by footballing behemoths Elgin City.

At least The New Saints got as far as the semis before they suffered the quintessential Scottish lower league experience, which is being bodied by Dumbarton.

This year the ridiculousness is turned up to eleven as Sutton United and Boreham Wood have been invited in. Who, you ask? (I imagine they'll be saying the same about whoever they are drawn against). These are the two highest finishing English non-league clubs that didn't get promoted last year. Given that most of us know so little about that level of football that we thought their league was still called the Conference, they're a bit of an unknown quantity.

What we do know, however, is that if they're good enough to just miss the playoffs, then they will have their eyes on the holy grail of promotion to the English Football League proper. Which means they have rather bigger fish to fry. And with forty-six league games (!) plus the FA Cup and the FA trophy - Boreham Wood played fifty-six matches last season - it's hard to see them taking this seriously.

And why should they, when no-one else is? A competition which should exist simply to give small Scottish clubs the chance to actually win something has now been hijacked and wrecked for the ends of clubs who didn't even compete in it. Either return it to its old ways or chuck the whole thing, for it is now one great big waste of time.

Lawrie Spence has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

No comments: