Barnsley 1 Everton U21s 1: Thiam keeps Reds in the equation in a competition still in search of an identity

SOMETIMES, the Checkatrade Trophy really doesn't help itself.

Adam Davies makes his second penalty save for Barnsley to win 4-2 on penalties against Everton U21. (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)
Adam Davies makes his second penalty save for Barnsley to win 4-2 on penalties against Everton U21. (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

Already a huge turn-off for supporters following the 2016 revamp that saw Academy teams invited to take part, the elongated group stage has become akin to a free-for-all with fixtures popping up all over the place.

Previously, ties in the first half of a season were played during international weeks. Everyone, be they a fan of the competition or not, knew where they stood and plans could be made accordingly.

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But, since the scheduling parameters were relaxed – primarily to accommodate the 16 Premier League and Championship clubs whose youngsters are invariably away with the under age international teams – all hell has broken loose.

Mamadou Thiam is blocked out by Everton players. (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

Now, clubs such as Barnsley can go 63 days without playing a Trophy game and then face two inside a week.

To make matters worse for the Reds, last night’s 1-1 draw with Everton’s Under-21s and next Tuesday’s Group F visit of Bradford City will come amid a run of five consecutive home fixtures.

Is it any wonder that fans are opting to pick and choose their games with Christmas just around the corner? Answers to that particular poser should be sent on a postcard to the Football League’s head office in Preston.

This congested calendar, together with the lack of appeal for a competition that Barnsley won in 2016, meant just 2,300 fans braved a cold evening to be at Oakwell.

Even that figure, when announced over the PA system late in the second half, drew a few disbelieving cries of ‘How many?’

For the opening half an hour, most of those who did make the effort must have wondered why they had forsaken a warm fireside or pub as both goalkeepers had about as much involvement in proceedings as those shivering in the East Stand.

Cauley Woodrow, making his first home start on loan from Fulham, finally woke those supporters from their slumber with a 25-yard drive that Joe Hilton did well to touch over at full stretch.

It was a fine save but one the Everton goalkeeper could not replicate five minutes before the break as Ryan Hedges’ effort from the edge of the area found the corner of the net.

Everton’s response came early after the restart, Bassala Sambou heading in unchallenged from a Josh Bowler corner.

Both sides then had chances to win the tie with Manasse Mampala bringing a smart save from Adam Davies, the only home player to have also started last Saturday’s 1-0 win over Southend United.

At the other end, George Moncur brought a smart save from Hilton, who also displayed good reflexes to deny Lloyd Isgrove from close range in stoppage time.

That meant a penalty shoot-out to decide who should be awarded an extra point, another ridiculous initiative exclusive to this mess of a competition.

Barnsley held their nerve with Moncur, Jacob Brown and Mike Bahre all converting from the spot as Everton missed two of their four spot-kicks.

This left Mamadou Thiam with the chance to settle matters and he made no mistake from 12 yards, sending Hilton the wrong way to take the Reds on to five points from two games.

Oldham Athletic are already through to the knockout stage after winning two of their three group games, meaning Barnsley and Bradford will do battle for that second slot next Tuesday.

A draw will be enough to take the Reds through, while the Bantams must not only triumph but also make up a four-goal deficit in the process.

Not quite all to play for but at least the Trophy’s new tagline ‘Every Game Matters’ is just about appropriate.