‘Every Game Matters’ is how the Checkatrade Trophy is being marketed by the Football League in this, the third season of a revamped format that turned supporters off from the very start.
Judging by the paltry numbers at Oldham Athletic’s Boundary Park last night for the visit of Barnsley, this message is yet to seep into the psyche of your average football fan.
A crowd of just 1,786 was present as the 2016 winners from South Yorkshire returned to Trophy action after 884 days away with a win courtesy of a goal apiece from Victor Adeboyejo and George Moncur.
The low key celebrations at the final whistle, along with the wholesale changes made by both managers, suggests this wasn’t a game that mattered much at all when compared to the pursuit of three points come Saturday. Still, the League plan to plough on with not only their attempts to generate interest in a competition where fans repeatedly vote with their feet but also a format that sees 16 Under-21s sides from the Premier League and Championship invited to take part.
A discussion at the club’s summer conference in June indicated a desire to persevere with the current set-up for another three years from 2019, the lure of a prize pot that this season stands at £3m no doubt a persuasive factor.
God loves a trier, of course. But there is an entrenched view among those who pay to go through the turnstiles that the presence of Academy teams will never be accepted, hence the plethora of low crowds last night that included three figure gatherings at Scunthorpe, Macclesfield and Burton Albion.
As for the action at Boundary Park last night, Daniel Stendel’s League One side did just about enough to take all three points.
Adeboyejo led the way with his third goal of the season and an assist to ensure the tie was spared a penalty shoot-out, one of those unnecessary ‘improvements’ that have been introduced since Barnsley bid farewell to what was then known as the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy with victory at Wembley.
Oldham broke the deadlock in the 31st minute, the man at fault for the visitors being Liam Lindsay – ironically the only player to retain his place from last Saturday’s win over Gillingham as Stendel made 10 changes and picked four teenagers without a senior appearance between them on the bench.
Having found himself on the wrong side of Sam Surridge as a punt forward landed in the visitors’ penalty area, Lindsay was unable to recover as the Latics striker displayed great strength to keep him at bay.
Then, as the defender made one last desperate attempt to retrieve the situation, Surridge displayed tremendous poise to drill a shot beyond Jack Walton.
The warning signs had been there for the Reds in an opening half hour that had seen the League Two outfit try to get the ball down and play.
Callum Lang brought a smart save from Walton midway through the first half and then followed this by wastefully heading over when picked out by Tom Hamer’s long throw.
Barnsley’s response to falling behind came a minute before the break.
Jared Bird’s burst into the area and tumble under a challenge was followed by Adeboyejo and Lloyd Isgrove getting in each other’s way when trying to finish to groans from the 443 visiting fans housed at the opposite end.
The Nigerian striker, however, would not be denied and he got to his feet before prodding a low shot beyond Zeus De La Paz.
Parity was the least the Reds deserved after Mike Bahre had earlier tested the reflexes of Athletic’s debutant goalkeeper with a low drive just moments after Surridge had opened the scoring.
The second half proved to be something of a slow burner, the only notable action in the early stages being an attempted volley by Johan Branger-Engone from a long diagonal pass that Cristiano Ronaldo would have done well to pull off.
Eventually, though, the chances started to flow as Jonathan Benteke, brother of Crystal Palace strike Christian, brought a save from Walton and Branger-Engone fired into the side-netting.
At the other end, Bahre wasted a couple of promising openings before the Reds went in front with just eight minutes remaining.
Moncur did the honours with a crisp finish after latching on to Adeboyejo’s lay-off to ensure it was first blood to Barnsley in a Group F that also contains Bradford City and Everton’s Under-21s.
Oldham Athletic: De La Paz; Hamer, Edmundson, Graham, Taylor; Benteke, Missilou (Baxter 58), Maouche, Brander-Engone; Lang (Gardner 74), Surridge (O’Grady 61). Unused substitutes: Stott, Hunt, Clarke, McFarlane.
Barnsley: Walton; Brown, Lindsay (Pinnock 46), Jackson, B Williams; J Williams, McGeehan, Bird; Isgrove (Thiam 68); Bahre (Moncur 73), Adeboyejo. Unused substitutes: Pinnock, Greatorex, Moon, Helliwell, Feeney.
Referee: S Stockbridge (Tyne & Wear).