The battle has begun in the war to preserve football

Pompey fans at Yeovil on Tuesday night. Picture: Joe Pepler
Pompey fans at Yeovil on Tuesday night. Picture: Joe Pepler

Fan who collapsed during friendly game dies

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The directive was ushered through on the eve of the grand unveiling.

Emanating from the Football League’s communications director, Mark Rowan, on Monday night, it represented a last-gasp hands and knees scrambling around for credibility.

‘It has been brought to the EFL’s attention that a number of media outlets are reporting that the invited Category 1 teams, due to play their opening Checkatrade Trophy fixtures this week, will be under-23 teams. THIS IS NOT THE CASE’.

Desperate late window dressing to reverse the deluge of negative connotations smothering a Frankenstein creation.

Inevitably some clubs dutifully complied, quietly dropping the under-23 labelling of the competition from their fixture lists.

Bradford tweeted: ‘We acknowledge fans’ observations but tonight’s match must be officially referred to as Bradford City v Stoke City’.

Football supporters, of course, are not as gullible as some regard them.

They are perceptive enough to discount the headache-inducing spin and recognise Shaun Harvey’s game plan without its ghastly make-up.

In this ongoing battle for hearts and minds, no amount of slick rebranding or fancy patter can conceal this rotting competition.

This is not driven by an admirable desire to assist Football League clubs, while it certainly isn’t to aid England’s badge. The motivation is to pander to the Premier League.

And this week’s collective show of might from fans by refusing to be part of it has delivered a damning verdict.

Crucially, it is also an early rebuttal to a greater danger to the game’s fabric – the Whole Game Solution.

Not that the concept of transforming the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy should be dismissed, the format has rightly long been widely regarded as an trifling irrelevance.

Harvey, the Football League’s chief executive, has pointed out overall attendances declined by 18 per cent in 2015-16, with a 50-per-cent drop in the opening stages.

In addition, of the 48 member clubs which competed last season, 29 made less than £10,000.

The subsequent overhaul has seen prize money leap from £478,000 to £1.95m, with sponsorship income rising by 35 per cent and group wins earning the victor £10,000 a time.

So how has this bold new venture fared in its opening week?

Well, 392 people attended Fleetwood’s fixture with Blackburn under-23s, Crewe’s trip to Accrington saw 585 present, while 876 turned up at Leyton Orient’s clash with Stevenage.

Despite the coveted presence of Premier League Swansea’s under-23 side at Wimbledon, the crowd peaked at 461.

The Swans’ line-up included 37-year-old German keeper Gerhard Tremmel and three English players.

Southend achieved the 10th lowest crowd in their history, Port Vale were watched by their smallest attendance for 30 years, while Premier League Everton took 63 fans to Bolton.

At Bradford, six of Stoke’s nine players aged under-21 were not English. First-team manager Mark Hughes did not attend.

The crowd of 1,444 is believed to be the Bantams’ lowest since 1981 – and consisted of 99 Stoke supporters.

Elsewhere, Wycombe boss Gareth Ainsworth rose from the bench at the age of 43 to claim an assist in a 3-0 win over Northampton, although Paul Tisdale was an unused substitute for Exeter City at Oxford United.

The highest attendance of Tuesday evening was at Sheffield United, with 3,632 welcoming the visit of Premier League champions Leicester.

Then there was Pompey at Huish Park, a crowd of 1,534 – including 270 away fans – witnessing an entertaining 4-3 victory for the hosts.

It was the ninth-lowest attendance in Pompey’s post-war history – and the sixth smallest in terms of matches taking place in this country.

Incidentally, that is a 44.95-per-cent fall from when the Blues played at Yeovil in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy in September 2014, then watched by 2,787, with 692 visitors.

So much for revitalising attendances and providing opportunities for young English players to flourish.

Except the Checkatrade Trophy is merely a scout sent ahead in the snow.

More of a concern is, under terms of the Whole Game Solution, that by 2019-20 the Football Association visualises four divisions of 20 clubs to accompany the Premier League.

The aspiration is to cut congestion by reducing the number of league fixtures and creating a winter break.

The wondrous resolution to complaints which don’t actually exist at the game’s lower levels.

In addition, two FA Cup rounds, potentially rounds four and five, will be moved to midweek occasions.

The format requires Football League implementation, with its tally of 72 clubs to be expanded to 80.

Ominously, the identities of the eight newcomers have yet to be determined.

The shortfall could be resolved by dipping into the National League or maybe tempting over the Old Firm.

In doing so, tearing up structures of established leagues.

It also unbolts the door to the possible entrance of affiliate sides, namely B teams or under-23 line-ups.

The latter represents a dream scenario for those gluttonous Premier League clubs with stockpiled squads pleading for regular football.

Chelsea alone have packed off 38 players on loan, of which a meagre 14 are qualified for England duty.

As an administrator, Harvey cannot push through the Whole Game blueprint, instead backing from at least 90 per cent of Football League clubs is required at the June 2017 annual general meeting.

Inevitably, inducements and promises of riches will be tabled to smooth the rocky road. Some will not refuse.

Still, there is a most effective way to ensure your club is persuaded to vote against such drastic alterations.

And football supporters of England and Wales, you have done precisely that during this past week.