By Paul Connolly
Oxford United faced off this week against Chelsea’s under-23s in the new Checkatrade Trophy.
It was not exactly the same as Oxford’s performance in the previous guise of the competition in April. That was in front of 60,000 supporters for a place in the final of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy against Barnsley.
The game this week ended in a 1-1 draw, ensuring qualification to the next stage for Oxford. A bizarre ruling meant, though, that the sides had to play out a penalty shootout for a bonus point. In true cup style, the shootout went down as the longest ever, with Chelsea coming out victorious following 34 spot-kicks.
In terms of cup magic, though, there was little to be had. It has instead been replaced by a sense of fear and loathing. In this week’s round of games, two-thirds of the games played attracted crowds of less than 1,000 supporters.
The defence for the competition has been minimal. Supporters boycotting is merely the start, with sides also bending rules on the minimum amount of first-teamers allowed to play.
There are hopes that the revamped format will help the England side by throwing youngsters into elite competition. For years, supporters have claimed that young, English players are not mentally tough enough. If ever there was a test of a player’s mental strength, it’s putting them up against Michael Brown on a cold Tuesday night in Port Vale.
It’s not only youngsters who are looking to the new format though. First-teamers returning from injury are no longer thrown into a slower-paced under-23 match, but instead come into the professional game, rather than the youth system.