Beggars can’t be choosers: Why every Portsmouth fan should crave a Checkatrade Trophy final appearance – Simon Carter
It is one of the most criticised tournaments in English football history, if not THE most criticised.
Seemingly unwanted by clubs, players and supporters alike, the EFL Trophy has been a unloved feature on the domestic football calendar for teams in the third and fourth divisions (and for six seasons in the noughties some non league clubs as well) since 1983.
It has never been remotely popular, and ties - certainly in the early rounds - have always attracted sparse crowds. Regularly, and embarrassingly, in the hundreds rather than thousands.
A succession of non-sexy sponsors whose names hardly trip off the tongue - Leyland Daf, Auto Windscreens, Johnstone's Paints, LDV Vans and currently Checkatrade - have done little to endear the competition to even diehard football supporters.
Just when you thought the tournament couldn't be made less appealing to fans, the organisers pulled a masterstroke ahead of the 2016/17 season by allowing a raft of Premier League and Championship clubs' academy teams.
At a stroke, and believing this was the start of a journey which would eventually lead to Premier League B teams being allowed into the Football League, many lower division supporters boycotted the tournament. As a result, crowds plummeted to even more derisory levels than before.
Only one saving grace remains, as it has done ever since the competition's second season in 1984/84. And that is the fact the final is held at English football's perennial Holy Grail - Wembley.
And every football fan wants to see their team at Wembley. Right?
Well, Pompey supporters could soon have to wrestle with that question as their club have made it through to the Checkatrade Trophy semi final. They stand just ninety minutes away from Wembley with an away tie against lower division Bury to negotiate.
And every single person who counts themselves as a Blues fan should be scrambling for a ticket if Pompey get past the Shakers.
Not one person should be saying 'well, it's only the Checkatrade Trophy, I hope we lose'.
And not one supporter should be saying 'well, I'd swap a final appearance for three points in the league.'
Why? Because this is football, and trips to Wembley are to be savoured. Yes, I know, some trips are savoured more than others. And yes, I also know Pompey played there five times in three years - two FA Cup finals, two semi finals and a Community Shield appearance between 2008-2010.
The 'swapping points' argument is also one of the most worthless any football fan has ever taken part in. It doesn't work like that. Ideally I want my team to get three points every week, but it doesn't happen. This is football - no-one wins every week and very rarely do we get what we want.
A decade ago, no Pompey fan would ever have imagined getting worked up about the EFL Trophy. Quite right, too. But Southampton fans would have said the same in 2005. Five years later, though, 50,000 Saints fans flocked to the final. Suddenly they cared. Why? Because it was Wembley, and a sign that their club were on the way back. They were right - just over two years later they were back in the Premier League.
Why can't the same happen to Portsmouth? Surely at this stage, just a hour and a half from Wembley, you don't want to miss out? Yes, you might have been to the stadium for far bigger games, but your team is on the verge of a cup final there. Doesn't matter if it's the Checkatrade. That's a tournament for third and fourth tier clubs and Pompey are one of them. Fact. If you don't like it, well ... you might not have to like it for much longer. You might be celebrating promotion in a few months time.
And an EFL Trophy final could help with the momentum needed. Those who say it could be an unwelcome distraction are wrong. Want an example? How about Bristol City, who in 2014/15 not only won League 1 with 99 points but lifted the EFL Trophy too? Want another one? How about Barnsley, who the following season not only won the EFL Trophy but used that momentum to then go on and win promotion via the League 1 play-offs? If they did it in recent seasons, why can't Pompey?
Go on, tell me - why can't Pompey? It would be nice to have League 1 promotion, but it would be nicer to have League 1 promotion and a Wembley cup final.
If Kenny Jackett and co don't win automatic promotion, it won't be because they reached the EFL Trophy final. It will be because they suffered shock league losses to the likes of Gillingham (twice) and Oxford.
Back in May 2010, when Pompey last walked out at Wembley, I can't imagine any fan ever thought the club would sink so low so quickly. But they did, and there are some things as a lower division football fan you have to get used to, even if you don't like it. Participation in the EFL Trophy is one of them. And correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the point of football clubs to be successful? Distilled to its essence, that means winning promotion, titles or trophies.
Let's rewind the clock if you're still unsure. Back in 1980, Wolves won the League Cup. Eight years later, they returned to Wembley - but this time as a fourth division club in the Sherpa Van Trophy final. Wolves played another famous old club, Burnley, and over 80,000 watched it. A friend of mine who follows Wolves says it remains one of the best days of his supporting life. I also know Saints fans who had far more enjoyment at Wembley watching their club win the 'poxy' EFL Trophy - as they once dismissively called it - than they have in the last few years in the Premier League.
Imagine Pompey v Sunderland at Wembley in April? A throwback to the Wolves-Burnley clash 31 years earlier, two famous old clubs who have fallen on relatively hard times enjoying a day out in the sunshine, potentially on their way back to where they feel they rightfully belong.
Yes, it's not the FA Cup, it's not the League Cup, it's not the Community Shield and it's not a play-off final either. But the EFL Trophy final is STILL a Wembley day out, and in football - unless you support one of the elite - you don't get those too often. Beggars cannot be choosers. We can't all support Manchester City or Chelsea. Lest we forget, prior to 2008 Pompey had only had three Wembley visits in their entire history.
Now the Blues have the stadium in their sights again. No fan, surely, can hope they fail at the final hurdle? And if they don't, and they reach the Holy Grail, then surely every fan will be desperate to get a ticket for the big day out?
Trust me, it WILL be a big day out. Not the biggest you've known, granted, but still a big day. In football, outside of the elite, you never know when those days might come around again. And, it therefore follows, surely no football fan willingly turns their back on a big day out ...?