The Challenge Cup has always served a purpose in the Scottish football calendar; namely to give lower league clubs an opportunity to win a cup without Premiership involvement. It’s not a competition which gets – or really needs – much exposure and most fans generally don’t care about it until at least the Quarter-Final stage. But in an age of pandering to the football super-clubs and television companies, it’s a reminder that football isn’t all about that.
Which is why the changes announced this week by the SPFL are so wrong-headed.
For those not aware, the revamped 2016/17 tournament is expanding to include four Highland and four Lowland League clubs, four sides from Northern Ireland and Wales and all twelve Premiership U20 teams. The expanded format means there will now be seven rounds of games, with the Highland, Lowland and u20 sides joining in Round 1 and the Northern Irish and Welsh sides appearing in Round 4. The majority of League 2 teams will enter in R1; League 2 in R2 and Championship sides in R3.
In support of this re-jig, the SPFL announced that Premier Sports and S4C will now cover selected games alongside regular (and generally very good) broadcaster, BBC Alba.
On the plus side, inviting Highland and Lowland League sides is a good move. With promotion to League 2 already in place it makes sense to expand non-league clubs’ involvement in the SPFL structure. Plus, as a supporter, drawing a Dalbeattie Star or Brora Rangers will be something new.
And, er, that’s about it.
Now, this isn’t a rant against change. Change is good and it’s often annoyingly slow to happen in our game. The playoffs, when they finally arrived, have been excellent and the League Cup changes are worth a try.
On this occasion though, Neil Doncaster and the SPFL have made a complete hash of things.
The main selling point of the Challenge Cup is that it gives clubs outwith the Premiership a more realistic chance of silverware. Alloa, Airdrie, Dundee, Raith, Falkirk, Stenhousemuir and Stranraer have all won it and Hamilton, Clyde, Brechin, Ayr, and Morton have all made it to the final. These sides rarely come close to winning a ‘big cup’.
The inclusion of the best four teams from Northern Ireland and Wales makes this more difficult in future, especially since the four clubs join at a later stage than any Scottish club. Only in Scotland would football’s governing body put its own clubs’ chance for success behind those of another country. The fact that (at least some) Scottish clubs have approved these plans makes this unfair decision more baffling.
It is true that an away tie against TNS or Crusaders might be a more exciting trip than to Dumbarton’s Cheaper Insurance Direct stadium, but will many fans really pay £100+ for a 4th Round tie in Belfast or Bala? A visit from TNS is not going to have crowds flocking back to Scottish grounds either. Our own non-league clubs should be the answer to the staleness of playing the same sides in every round and pre-season’s the time for an ‘unusual’ opponent.
As for the inclusion of the Premiership u20’s teams?
The clubs have been sold the line that in the wake of the National Team’s failure to qualify for Euro 2016 we need to ‘accelerate the development’ and ‘increase the experience’ of the top club’s youth players.
That the revised Challenge Cup is going to aid this is patently nonsense. There is an issue with player development in Scotland, but having 19-year-olds playing one or two games a season against Montrose is not going to turn them into the next Gareth Bale or Lionel Messi.
It also has the effect of turning the Challenge Cup from a lower league trophy to a Premiership play-thing. It says ‘we don’t care if Alloa want to win this trophy; the most important thing is that some kids from Rangers get to play a few matches against experienced pros’.
If the SPFL want young players to play more regularly with or against experienced pros they need to make changes to the Development League; not faff about with the Challenge Cup.
I can’t imagine it’s going to be a winner with crowds either. Will fans of Annan flock to see their game with Motherwell’s U20 team? I don’t see it. It feels like a pre-season fixture. The only two that’ll generate a crowd will be Rangers and Celtic, and even then, it’s pretty slim pickings. I don’t recognise a single current Celtic Development League player and, frankly, I don’t care either.
The Challenge Cup was not a perfect tournament, but it was our tournament; the lower league teams. Now it’s a Neil Doncaster vanity project; now it’s a Premiership youth cup; now it’s a way to sell matches on Premier Sports. It’s not our tournament any more.
Written by Andy Harrow