Premier League ‘B’ teams for the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy

The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy has never been an easy sell. At the start of any season it will likely be only the fourth priority tournament for a League One or Two club.

The lure of Wembley can give it growing significance as the season progresses but no manager begins a campaign plotting JPT glory or bust.

But, despite abundant derision, the competition has survived and is now in its 32nd season. Twenty-five different teams have lifted the trophy under its various sponsorships, ranging from Wrexham and Mansfield to Southampton and Stoke. It has a basic credibility.

That credibility is now at risk, however, and that threat comes, inevitably, from the meddling and power-grabbing to which those at the top end of the English game are addicted.

The proposal to allow Premier League clubs to field B teams in the JPT first emerged as a “compromise” after the idea of letting big clubs’ reserves into the lower divisions was roundly and rightly rejected at the end of last season.

Yet it’s hard to see how an idea that has little merit when applied to the league system somehow acquires some when bolted on to the least glamorous professional competition in the calendar.

Nonetheless, money talks, and it is not difficult to see how the prospect of experiencing the hospitality at the Emirates or Anfield, plus potentially sizeable financial inducements, might appeal in lower division boardrooms.

This may be why League One and Two clubs have agreed to keep the idea on the table, with reportedly fan-owned AFC Wimbledon the only League Two club recording unequivocal opposition.

Wimbledon have called it right. Allowing bigger teams’ reserves into the competition dilutes the significance it holds, reduces the chances of a Wembley day out for fans of clubs that rarely – if ever – experience one and further attacks the competitive appeal of lower division football in general.

And let’s say it. The Football League Trophy, to give it its original name, does have appeal.

Even the early rounds, traditionally attended by about a third of a club’s usual average crowd, give supporters a chance to run the rule over fringe players much as Premier League supporters can enjoy the opening rounds of the League Cup, as well as the chance to gain “loyal fan” bragging rights over others.

The latter stages of the competition, however, can be serious business, particularly for teams with little else to play for come early spring. This year’s finalists Walsall, making their first ever appearance at Wembley, have sold well over 20,000 tickets and a season otherwise petering out into mid-table League One mediocrity has a fresh vigour. Their opponents, Bristol City, by contrast, are chasing a League One title/JPT double.

From a footballing perspective who, precisely, benefits from replacing this with Stoke B v Manchester City B as a potential final?

Moreover, this proposal can only act as a softening-up exercise for the eventual goal, supported by the FA chairman, Greg Dyke, and his commission of fearless thinkers last year, of allowing Premier League teams to clog up the most popular and competitive lower divisions in the world with half-interested reserve teams.

Even on its own merit, the JPT proposal does not stand up. The idea that England players will be that much sharper and more technically accomplished in World Cup group games as a result of having spent Tuesday nights in November toiling away at Accrington or Exeter is laughable.

As the campaign group Against League 3 has argued, if the problem is that too few leading English players get enough competitive game time, then the answer is to prevent the bigger clubs hoarding talent.

Since this would involve bigger clubs, rather than smaller ones, making sacrifices it is completely off the table. The “r” word – redistribution – remains taboo at the top echelons of the game.

Just as worrying is the lack of consultation and research behind such a proposal. Supporters’ groups remain resolutely opposed to B teams in senior leagues but their views seem to count for little.

Instead, an experiment that no-one wants could be foisted on a tournament that few of those proposing it watch in supposed pursuit of a goal that looks as unrealistic as ever.

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