The local lad scoring in a Wembley cup final. Football has morphed into something wholly unrecognisable since Bolton Wanderers beat West Ham United in front of an estimated 300,000 in the first Wembley cup final nearly a hundred years ago, but the dream of the home-grown hero scoring a goal in a cup final is something that has remained intact. That moment of elation that makes the gruelling away trips and countless relegation fights seem worthwhile. On Sunday Oxford United experienced that feeling when Callum O’Dowda – “Oxford born! Oxford bred!” as the Sky Sports commentary excitedly informed us – climbed at the back post to nod his team into a one nil lead over Barnsley in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Final.
The Yellows eventually lost the game 3-2 in a thrilling contest, but it was a memorable day nevertheless for a side with a turbulent recent history. The club has been plagued by financial difficulties since the start of the millennium and even had an ignominious three year stint in the Conference. The club is currently much more stable, having spent the last five seasons in League Two’s upper mid table and are on the brink of promotion back to the third tier after a fifteen year absence. For these fans the day out at Wembley is an overdue highlight in a difficult era for the club.
It was not just Oxford that this was a magical day for. For Barnsley it was the latest twist in one of the craziest seasons conceivable. At the start of December the Tykes were on a miserable run of form. They had claimed only won victory in eleven league games and were knocked out of the FA Cup by non-league Altrincham. However the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy acted as a catalyst for a change in fortunes, since a surprise victory at Wigan Athletic in the quarter finals, the south Yorkshire club have lost just three times in twenty one games and are now in the thick of the play-off race.
The cup can also have a transformative impact off the pitch. For lower division clubs it is an opportunity to receive some rare media attention and recapture some local fans who they often lose to bigger, more prominent, regional rivals. On this occasion over 30,000 fans travelled from Oxfordshire while Barnsley provided around 24,000 of their own support. Last season 30,000 fans came from Walsall to watch them play Bristol City and provided an enormous boost to the club as well as the town.
However occasions like these are under threat. Sam Wallace broke a story in the Telegraph recently stating that Premier League sides were in negotiation to add sixteen of their Under 21 teams into the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy next season, to expose them to competitive professional football. Meaning we could soon be seeing the youth sides of Chelsea and Manchester City in the Wembley final instead. This is a similar suggestion than that floated by Gregg Dyke last year that sought to add Premier League B teams to the lower divisions in an attempt to help the progression of young English players.
Although you have to question whether this will really develop young English players. The greatest stumbling block these players face is that the importance of staying in and performing well in the Premier League means that clubs will not gamble on their youth. The England squad is full of players, such as Fraser Forster, Eric Dier, Dele Alli and Jamie Vardy, who have had to take an unconventional route to the top flight due to a lack of opportunities. It is hard to believe that the a few promising games in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy would convince club like Manchester City and Chelsea to play their youth players in critical Premier League or Champions League games.
Equally, despite the caricature of the lower leagues as negative and lacking in quality there was plenty of talent on display on Sunday. The aforementioned O’Dowda is only twenty years old and was subject of a £1 million bid from Derby County in the summer, a club with an impressive record of developing young players in recent years. Teammate Kemar Roofe has also had an excellent season; he has scored 17 times and provided 8 assists. He also netted twice to help knock Premier League side Swansea City out of the FA Cup and looks destined for a career at a higher level.
For Barnsley young centre-back Alfie Mawson is attracting the attention of a few top flight clubs and could follow in the footsteps of John Stones, who came through the Barnsley academy, and is now one of England’s best defenders. In fact Stones’ presence in the England squad means that Barnsley will have a greater number of youth graduates at Euro 2016 than several Premier League clubs.
Of course the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy is not the sacred trophy that I have perhaps suggested in this article. Even the name seems small-time and many fans dismissively label it as the ‘paint pot’. Additionally many fans in the lower divisions will understandably tell you that Johnstone’s Paint Trophy is probably their fourth priority, it does not hold the same money spinning potential of a run in the FA or League Cup, and promotion is obviously what matters most. Accrington Stanley and Exeter City dropping points, two results that nudge Oxford ever closer to the third tier, is more advantageous to the club in the long-term than a victory at Wembley would have been.
However when Oxford fans look back over previous seasons it is not these results that they will remember it is that bittersweet memory of O’Dowda heading their side into the lead at Wembley they will talk about. The winger described the goal as ‘the best moment of his life’; to rob him, and the fans, of this sort of moment would be a real shame.