We seem to be accepting as football fans that some competitions are not worth the effort in taking part. The Carling Cup in England hasn’t been taken seriously by the big clubs for seasons, and in recent years the importance of a decent run in the FA Cup has taken second place for many teams over survival in the league. The most worrying trend though has been the lack of attention clubs like Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur have paid to their UEFA Cup campaigns which has really devalued the competitions.
In the non-leagues the major cup competition has always been the FA Trophy (and the FA Vase for the smaller clubs). There was a league cup competition that ran from 1979 until 2001 when Chester City became the last winners. By that stage crowds had fallen to laughable levels (it was not unheard of to hear matches in the opening rounds being played in front of a couple of dozen fans) so the tournament was scrapped, only to re-appear in 2004 under the name of the Challenge Cup. Unfortunately a poor winter lead to a crippling fixture pile up that meant clubs were forced to field virtual youth teams to get through the games. Woking ended the season as winners of the cup, beating Stalybridge Celtic 1-0. The Conference had managed to find a sponsor for the tournament (in fact they had a couple as it started off as the Carthium Group Cup before they went bankrupt before Galdwish Land Sales stepped in making it the GLS Cup) but they decided not to continue their investment and so the cup was once again sidelined.
When Setanta signed their deal to cover football at all levels they were keen on getting “exclusivity” to a new competition and so the cup was resurrected as the Setanta Shield in time for the start of the 2007/08 season. Again clubs did not take it seriously and neither did the fans. This was reflected in the quarter finals (essentially played as regional semi finals) where the highest attendance was just over 800. The format of the competition in the latter stages was that the final would be played at the club who held the highest league position out of all of the semi finalists at the time of the first semi. Which could mean that the final was played at a neutral venue, or not as the case may be. In this case it worked very well as Aldershot were on top of the league at the time and thus gained the right to host the final, which they themselves won against Rushden & Diamonds in front of 3,700 fans. Woking v Halifax Town played at Aldershot would have got no more than 500 if that turned out to be the game.
Undeterred by the inconvenience the cup caused, Setanta vowed to carry on with their patronage into this season with the winning club set to receive £16,000. Due to the fixture pile up last season the final date was set in stone as Thursday 5th March 2009, giving all clubs an opportunity to concentrate on the league in the final weeks of the season. All very well in practice. Early rounds again were poorly supported – Team Bath’s local derby with Bath City had no paying fans, and less than a hundred at Hyde Town. The Third round, the stage the “big teams” entered, faile d to attract one attendance over 1,000, and the local derby between Forest Green Rovers and Oxford United saw a awful crowd of 383, for a game that would attract nearly 4,000 in the league in early March. In fact prior to the semi-finals there had only been one crowd above 1,000 in the competition!
So with the final date looming, the clubs tried to shoe horn in as many games as they could in December and January….and then came the artic winter conditions in early February that caused havoc as the quarter final between Crawley Town and Ebbsfleet United had to be postponed on three occasions, and could only be re-scheduled on the 5th March – the day of the final and the it was cancelled again due to a flooded pitch! So as we reached cup final day we can see that Forest Green are waiting patiently for the winner of the game versus Crawley and Ebbsfleet, whilst the other semi-final between Barrow and Telford United had been postponed twice and abandoned on Tuesday 3rd March.
Setanta then stuck their oar in and told Barrow that they would have to play the game on Tuesday 10th March so that they could show it live. Barrow (and Telford) refused as both had scheduled league games – Barrow are flirting with relegation from the Blue Square Premier League at the moment but they have games in hand a plenty. They could play it on the 12th March, with both clubs agreeing to field a second team. Setanta again objected and demanded they play it on a Tuesday. Both clubs went to the FA to complain and suggested a coin toss to determine who went through – again Setanta said no, so it is now up to the FA to determine what the outcome should be for this tie.
But wait – here is the massive issue. The “rules” of the tournament say that the “highest placed team in the non-league structure out of the four semi-finalists on the day of the semi-finals being played will be deemed the host of the final of the Setanta Shield”. At the moment this would be Crawley by a country mile, but what if they lose to Ebbsfleet? As I write this Barrow have 33 points (from 32 games), Ebbsfleet 34 (from 30 games) and Forest Green Rovers 35 (from 34 games). Telford are in the Blue Square Northern so would not be considered. So if Ebbsfleet win tonight* versus Crawley AS WE SIT AT THE MOMENT Forest Green would host the final….but suppose the semi’s cannot be played for another few weeks, giving Barrow the chance to play their games in hand? It could well mean they were the highest positioned club in the semi-finals DESPITE having already played their game and lost to Telford BEFORE Forest Green play Ebbsfleet. And thus a Telford versus Forest Green (not too far apart in terms of Geography) would be played some 200 miles away in one of the remotest towns in the UK in front of a crowd of one man and a dog.
* Stop Press at 3pm 5th March – Crawley v Ebbsfleet is postponed again due to a waterlogged pitch! New date to be decided when??? Setanta have also announced that the final WILL be on the 26th March. That means that if Ebbsfleet are to reach the final they will have to play two Setanta, two FA Trophy semi-finals and four BSP games – a simple 8 games in 20 days – I am sure they would like to thank Setanta for this!
Update 18th March 2009
So we now have some clear water….Ebbsfleet beat Crawley in front of 844 people last night meaning they will be in the Semi-Finals…..Both will be played on the 26th March (again the date of the final)….But who exactly will host the final? as we sit today it will be Ebbsfleet BUT before the 26th March all teams have to play once – Barrow have Lewes at home, Forest Green away at Altrincham and Ebbsfleet away at Salisbury some 3 days after playing the FA Trophy semi final 2nd leg and 2 days before the Forest Green game.
Ebbsfleet and Forest Green are seperated by goal difference, with Barrow two points behind. However, Ebbsfleet have FIVE games in hand on Forest Green, hardly making it fair if they end up below both teams by a week tomorrow.
Update 22nd March 2009
Ebbsfleet are now playing at home versus Forest Green Rovers on Thursday 26th March, whilst Barrow take on Telford on Tuesday 24th March, the same night that Ebbsfleet play Salisbury in the league. If Ebbsfleet fail to win on Tuesday then the final will be played at Forest Green’s New Lawn. If they win then it will be at Stonebridge Road irrespective of the result in the game between Barrow and Telford. That is of course if Setanta change the rules AGAIN!
Update 25th March 2009
Ebbsfleet lost away at Salisbury and coupled with Forest Green’s win at Altrincham on Saturday means that the final will be played at New Lawn. Just got to work out who will be there for it. Forest Green will hope for a “local” ish derby with Telford which may mean that the crowd reaches four figures…..
If Ebbsfleet beat Salisbury away on Tuesday night then they would host the final, which could be between Forest Green (152 miles away) and Barrow (352 miles away) or Telford (181 miles away).
Or will it be here in the heart of the Gloucestershire countryside – certainly handy for Telford but not so for Barrow (or Ebbsfleet)