The short walk from Charlton train station to The Valley is usually marked by the familiar, life-affirming buzz of match-going fans.
Normally, chants of support are carried from the station platform all the way to the turnstiles. Children yap excitedly about the forthcoming to their parents. Scents of pie and beer are borne by the breeze, along with the shouts of programme sellers and charity collectors.
But ahead of Tuesday’s Checkatrade Trophy match against the might of Swansea City U21s, there is none of that. The footsteps of the few diehard supporters puncture the silence in the approach to the stadium, which stands illuminated against the November night. The masses which usually surround it are nowhere to be seen. Tonight, The Valley is a mecca to no-one.
Of course, none of this is remotely surprising. The Checkatrade Trophy, formerly the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, has been the bane of clubs’ and supporters’ lives since its change in format in 2016.
That restructuring allowed Premier League and Championship clubs to enter age-group teams in a tournament that used to be strictly the preserve of those in the third and fourth tier of English football. The addition of a group stage to what was once a purely knockout competition has eradicated the appeal of a straight forward cup tie.
Braving the cold
That said, the competition had, until this clash, thrown up some interesting occurrences for the Addicks. A club-record 8-0 win was notched up against Stevenage, while bizarrely, a supporter proposed to his girlfriend at half-time of the 2-2 draw with AFC Wimbledon.
But whatever interest or excitement in the competition that had been generated in those two matches is undone by the arrival of the U21s of Swansea, a club just one division above Charlton.
With just 740 supporters (28 of whom are dedicated Swans fans) descending upon the 27,000-capacity Valley, this match feels more like a pre-season friendly than a key, group-deciding EFL Trophy match.
Only a limited portion of the west stand is open. The rest of the stadium stands bare as the shouts of players, coaches, and referee rebound across the ground’s emptiness and reverberate. Occasional cries of ‘come on you Reds’ from the more eager home supporters float hopelessly into the cold, dark sky.
The players do little to spark the small crowd into life. Swansea dominate the early exchanges, displaying the kind of crisp passing football the club has become famed for, but without ever applying the finishing touch.
Charlton, who have named a team far from their strongest, hustle and bustle but produce little in the way of quality.
At half-time, the sense of boredom among the spectators is notable. In theory, this is a competition that should excite. The chance to win silverware is one that doesn’t come around all that often. Why, then, can the club barely attract 700 to a match with much at stake? Charlton need to avoid defeat in order to progress, so why can the Addicks’ faithful not be bothered to leave the house and cheer on their side, despite the low ticket prices offered by the club?
The EFL have devalued and debased a trophy that was once coveted
The answer lies in the fact that the EFL, in their bid to increase the competition’s appeal by adding U21 teams from the big, shiny, attractive Premier League clubs, have only served to devalue and debase a trophy that was once coveted.
It’s frankly perverse that the young talent of Chelsea or Southampton should be able to deny lower-league clubs the chance to compete in a cup final at Wembley.
Having said that, the appeal of playing at the national stadium is one that seems to diminish season upon season.
The overuse of Wembley — for cup finals, cup semi-finals, play-off finals, not to mention the fact that Tottenham have used it as their home stadium, and welcomed a number of lower league sides in various cup ties — has stripped the home of English football of its mystique.
In reality, an appearance on the Wembley turf is a far cry from the footballing holy grail the FA seeks to present it as. The chance to play there, for many clubs, will not be worth the ordeal of having to negotiate the various stages of the Checkatrade Trophy.
At The Valley, a 20-yard strike from Swansea’s Adnan Maric ultimately condemns Charlton to defeat, knocking them out of the tournament at the group stage.
It’s a match defined by indifference. Indifference from the players, indifference from Addicks’ manager Lee Bowyer and his staff, and indifference from the few supporters who have braved the cold. The simple and sad truth is that no-one cares about the Checkatrade Trophy.