Thursday, March 02, 2017

I'm going to Wembley


The EFL Trophy, has there ever been a more divisive competition? Never particularly popular, it descended into farce this year with the introduction of Under 23 teams from the Premier League. A boycott by lower league fans sent a strong statement of intent, but we now face our fourth trip to Wembley and, perhaps, the best opportunity for silverware in over 30 years.

There has been lots of very worthy commentary why people are not going to Wembley. It is very easy to believe that boycotting is the only moral option.

I decided a couple of rounds ago that I would probably go to Wembley despite being a supporter of the protests around the country. In essence, I’m following my heart, which wants to go and not my head which tells me to stick to my principles. However, the more I think about it, the more I’m comfortable with the idea. Here’s why…

Boycotting Wembley won’t work 
The boycott certainly had a strong symbolic impact; but it was never a popular tournament in the first place so it wasn’t difficult to empty the stadiums. A bit like organising a boycott of Brussel sprouts; it would be full of people who would never eat them in the first place. Many thousands of people like me wouldn’t have gone to games in the early rounds anyway, so boycotting was hardly a chore. Those who would have attended early rounds but didn’t because of the boycott was relatively small. Comparable figures are difficult, but the crowd for Bradford this year was 2,247 compared to Yeovil last year which was 2,532. That’s a drop of just 12%. There was talk about the '1500' who would have been at Luton if there'd been no boycott, but in reality there was only 40 fewer fans at Kenilworth Road than the last time we visited in the league. If 12% boycotted the final, we would take just under 30,000 fans; more than Barnsley took. Nobody is going to notice a 12% drop in a Wembley attendance, particularly in a competition that has had final crowds as low as 21,000 and as high as 80,000. Nobody knows what a good EFL Trophy Final crowd is anyway. The early rounds boycott made a statement, and it was more powerful because it spread across the tournament and across many teams, a Wembley boycott would have to be unimaginably massive to have any impact at all.

The boycott made A statement, it didn’t make THE statement 
When will we know the boycott worked? When b-teams are not playing in the Football League, I suppose. We know that they aren’t at the moment and they won’t be next season. We don’t know beyond that and sadly we’ll never know whether it will happen in the future. Let’s face it, Premier League clubs have enough money to buy their way into the Football League if they choose. If each contributed the equivalent of an average Premier League right-back, they would have more than enough to bribe their way to anything. If the Premier League want this to happen, then they’ll make it happen regardless of the moralising of a boycott. So, the boycott sent a signal - which the Football League will already be painfully aware of - but the boycott didn’t, and never will, solve the problem once and for all.

The experiment didn’t work 
Fielding Under 23s didn’t work on practically every level. It was grotesquely unpopular, damaging the Premier League brand. Several Premier League teams didn’t even engage in the experiment anyway, which shows just how little interest there is in the idea in the first place. Those who did materially failed to comply with the spirit of the idea. Several clubs fielded over-aged players from overseas, a clear snub of the idea of giving young English talent the opportunity to test themselves. Furthermore, those who did enter did really badly. The last Premier League team standing, Swansea, made it to the quarter-finals, a third went out in the group stage, 75% were gone by round two. Apparently Joe Royle said that Premier League youngsters had gained experience of 'direct balls from Cheltenham', which isn't the best preparation for facing Barcelona in five years time. If there was an appetite for this idea, there’s not much to suggest it should be pursued.

There’s more than one way to protest. 
Why is there a protest in the first place? Because we believe that lower league teams have a right to compete and thrive. And what proves that? The thousands of people who attend games away from the glare of the Premier League. And what is the best way to keep proving that? To keep going to games. Say the final only attracted 10,000 people, does that prove the boycott worked or that the lower leagues don’t have the grassroots support it claims? What has more impact; nobody attending a game which people claim nobody cares about anyway or a capacity crowd that emphatically proves the vibrancy and relevance of the lower leagues? When the FA bid for the 2018 World Cup they made a point of highlighting the vitality of the English game using our Conference game against Luton as an example. There would be no stronger statement about the importance of the lower leagues than if the stadium was full.

The kids
I started going regularly to Oxford at the dawn of the Glory Years. In three years I saw two promotions and a Wembley appearance. The experience forged something very deep in me. Had I not been through that, it’s quite possible that me and people like me would have had no more than a passing interest in the club. The last 18 months have been the best Oxford have had in the intervening 30 years. Kids living through this period are collecting memories which will get them through any future and fallow years. Failing to use these experiences risks them drifting towards the bright lights of the Premier League where they have glory on tap (I would probably have been an Arsenal fan, for example). The kids don’t understand nuanced arguments about Premier League academy teams, they want to see teams picking up silverware at Wembley. If that is Oxford, they’ll stick with us for life.

John Lundstram
Last year John Lundstram missed out on Wembley. Lundstram is one of a raft of players who has been persuaded by Michael Appleton that there is more to life than hanging around in Premier League loungewear hoping that you might get a substitute’s appearance in the early rounds of the League Cup. Firstly, I want him to love playing for Oxford and him winning in front of 30,000-plus yellows will ensure that is the case. Secondly, the more young pros who see what is possible in an Oxford shirt, the more likely they are to sign, the more glorious that looks the more attractive we become. That makes us more sustainable and relevant.

Joe Skarz also missed out last year; these are players that we want to celebrate, we want them to win games in an Oxford shirt at Wembley in front of Oxford fans. This is a chance; why would you dampen it?

I’m 44
I have spent most of my life not seeing Oxford United get anywhere near Wembley. It’s conceivable that I’ll never get another chance. If I don’t take chances when they are presented to me, I’m frankly a bloody idiot.

None of this detracts from the effectiveness of the boycott. In August and September, it made a clear statement about the strength of feeling on the issue. But, those who are resolutely planning to stick to their principles for the sake of, well, sticking to their principles might find that they are turning from principled freedom fighters into ineffective ideological bores. Protest and disruption is certainly part of any activism, but offering some sort of demonstration of strength, a positive energy is similarly important. Going to Wembley is not necessarily an act of deceit but a demonstration of power.

5 comments:

David Woollacott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BigD said...

I'm boycotting, I have to confess it's easier for me/us because I went last year and it must be much more difficult for Coventry fans, but I don't agree with parts of your post.

1. Boycotting Wembley won’t work - you say "Comparable figures are difficult". Actually comparable figures are very easy. Last season we took however many thousand to Wembley, if we took half of that this year then it would be an extremely powerful message.

2. The boycott made A statement, it didn’t make THE statement. Well, no, obviously because we can never be sure B Teams won't be brought in at some point as we can't see into the future. There is some benefit in repeatedly making the point that we don't want it though and, more importantly, making sure there is some impact to our not wanting it.

3. The experiment didn’t work. Depends what the experiment was. If it was to prove that B Teams can play in a competition with lower league sides, I'd argue it was a success as they have an the final will be watched by tens of thousands of people. It just might not have been the correct competition (from the EFL's point of view), or the rules might need tweaking.

4. There’s more than one way to protest. You seem to be arguing here that attendance matters but in point 1 you're saying attendance doesn't matter and doesn't prove anything anyway.

5. The kids - I'm not sure the argument is that nuanced. Clearly depends on the age of the children in question, but won't somebody please think of the children is not often a great argument. You could also say that there is something to be learnt about protest, principles and sticking to them that is also important for children to think about - i.e. let them make their own decision and understand the different viewpoints. We all like to think "our" club is different and here we have a chance to prove it.

6. John Lundstram - I don't disagree, but actually winning the competition is the important thing here, not how many people they play in front of.

7. I'm 44 - even if the absolute best happens in this final, it'll be the 3rd best OUFC experience at Wembley.

Oxblogger said...

Thanks for the comment. There's no right or wrong here, it is ultimately personal choice. I'm not trying to convince anyone to go or demonise anyone who doesn't. Taking each point...

1. Realistically, I don't think there's any chance of half the number going. Oxford have 5-6k regulars, 35k went last year. That's 30k who are relatively casual (or can't get to games often etc). It would need massive numbers to feel that passionately about the issue to have any impact at all. You won't notice the difference between 10,000 empty seats and 20,000 empty seats. If you want to highlight the issue, I think you have to use the fact there will be a big crowd to benefit the cause - fill the stadium, not empty it.

2. Yes, this is true, but making the same point over and over will only get you so far. The media barely mention the boycott now, it's old news. PR terms there are points where you've got to change the narrative to re-fresh the message.

3. No right answers here, although I maintain that a boycott won't definitively mitigate the threat. If the Premier League want this (and I'm not sure they do) then they'll just keep upping the money until someone caves in. At the moment, the cash is almost limitless. What the boycott does is remind people that there are people with alternative views. I think that will get lost at Wembley.

4. I think what I'm saying is that emptying the stadium makes a point, filling the stadium makes a point. How about 'Occupy Wembley' or wearing a symbolic colour of support. You've got Sky there; why not use it as a platform for dignified protest? I do think the boycott is very worthy, but it is old news.

5. I think some people in football take this all way too seriously. I think it's a stretch to say that the boycott helps children understand the power of protest and wider morals and values etc. I'm just thinking that keeping kids interested in lower league football is best achieved by showing them how great it is to go to lower league football.

6. ...but isn't winning in front of a full stadium better than winning in an empty stadium?

7. Agree, even without the cloud of the boycott it would have been the third best. But 40 years to have the third best Wembley experience is a long time to wait!

BigD said...

thanks for the reply - I appreciate the appetite for this discussion (like the boycott itself) is somewhat disappearing - it appears the non-boycotters have won this argument given we're probably going to take 30k or so. However I'm still frustrated, but football fans have always been particularly bad at sticking to boycotts, because as soon as our teams start to win we all turn up. This is why ticket prices keep going up, why fixtures get moved at short notice, why owners get to do whatever they want, why b-teams appear in our cup competitions etc etc.

Start of last season the Coventry fans boycotted their owner, but then they ended up near the top of the league, so they all started going again....

Actually, what I think I find annoying about it is all the arguments put forward at the start of the boycott are still true now, nothing has changed, there was always the possibility we'd make it to Wembley and that should have been a consideration before deciding, like many of our fans did, to so openly boycott.
Anyway, I'll go and have a lie-down, this isn't important, people should go to Wembley if they want, I really hope we win too.

Charlie Malam said...

Good afternoon,

I'm doing a third-year university project on the Checkatrade Trophy and was wondering if I might be able to speak to you in a bit more detail about this post and your feelings about going to Wembley etc.

Any help would be really appreciated!

Let me know if you'd be up for it, my email is: cfm013@hotmail.co.uk.

Cheers,

Charlie.