Against modern football. Against soulless all-seater stadia. Against a world where the game is dominated by a global alliance of megaclubs, leaving the rest to feed on scraps. Increasingly, amid football’s traditional fanbase, disquiet is growing about the steady journey from sporting battle to mass-market entertainment, something similar to the journey from a band playing in a room above a bar to the slick and cynical celeb-friendly world of the X Factor. And, if you think it’s bad now, as your team’s longest away trip of the season is arbitrarily shifted to a Monday evening by a TV company and your sole plausible chance of silverware is tossed away by a hapless reserve team at a blustery lower-division mudpatch, it can still get worse.
The deeply unloved Football League Trophy offers an unhappy view of a plausible future. When this competition was established for teams in the bottom two divisions of the Football League, back in the early 1980s, it seemed like a good idea. A chance of silverware, a trip to Wembley for clubs never likely to reach FA or League Cup finals, more local derbies thrown up by regionalised draws. But from the start, it had an image problem. While a glimpse of Wembley – twin towers or arch – on the horizon might bump up crowds for the knock-out stages, the early fixtures never got much attention. Efforts were made to reinvigorate the format; Conference teams were invited for a while, then came the controversial move to invite top-flight academies to the party.
Lower league fans were aghast, fearing a slippery slope that would see Premier League ‘B’ teams lining up alongside the Rochdales and Stevenages of the league. Within a decade of playing in the third tier with their first teams, clubs like Leicester and Southampton would be sending out U21 teams to play against their recent peers. A boycott followed, record low crowds resulted. And, ironically, in the season that Sunderland and Portsmouth set a record of 85,021 for the final, Burton Albion and Middlesbrough U21s played a group game in front of just 202 at the Pirelli Stadium.
Sunderland, of course, were one of those clubs that had been entering an U21 team until relegation put them in the lower divisions. Now it was senior Black Cats against junior Foxes as Leicester U21s came to visit. On Wearside, the novelty had worn off. Last season, academy opposition from Newcastle and Manchester City attracted five-figure crowds to the Stadium of Light; a Wembley day out was a welcome adventure, even if few regarded it as a ‘proper’ cup final. However, a second season at this level, a faltering promotion push and an unpopular new manager turned the tournament into a chore.
Officially, there were 7,000 or so at the Stadium of Light. In reality, it’s unlikely there were half as many in attendance. The club offered free tickets – and a loyalty point – to season ticket holders as compensation for the ‘missing’ game lost when Bury dropped out of the league. A good number signed up for the freebie and stayed home. Those who braved the November chill were scattered around the stadium, which offered a textbook definition of the phrase ‘soulless bowl’. Blowing a first-half lead and losing to a team of unknowns did nothing to lift the mood.
Tellingly, when the starting XI lined up, the lowest number on a blue shirt was 16. This was not a roster of kids knocking on the door of the first team, it was plausibly a collection of players destined to scrape together a dozen league appearances between them. For many Sunderland fans, the whole evening represented a new low in a season of third-tier struggle that seems to scrape closer to the bottom of the barrel with every passing defeat.
But this isn’t a story about a club falling on hard times, nor even about poor attendances in a competition with a long history of small crowds. It’s more about a fear for the future, and not just in Sunderland.
It’s far from unimaginable that a European Super League will sweep up the top Premier League teams and sent them jaunting around the continent to play their big club counterparts from Spain, Germany, Italy and beyond. Once on the gravy train, the only way to retain a ‘local’ presence would be to enter ‘B’ teams somewhere in the English football pyramid. At a stroke, the league structure that has sustained the game for decades – the ‘bread and butter’ of press conference cliché – comes under threat.
The attraction of football, especially if your club is never likely to trouble the Champions League, is the chance to take on anyone. But, if Manchester City come to town, it needs to be Manchester City. With the players you saw last Saturday on Match of the Day. With the travelling fans, irritatingly essential for any kind of atmosphere. Without that, the game withers. Crowds dwindle, grounds feel too big for the event. The bread and butter, now genetically modified, turns to a poison. The game is somehow hollowed out.
Stadium of Light, Sunderland, England
Nov. 5, 2019. Leasing.com Trophy, group stage
Sunderland 1 (Maguire) Leicester U21s 2 (Hurst, Dewsbury-Hall)
Att: 7,649 (officially, the reality seemed barely half that)