Embracing The Strange

or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tunnocks Caramel Wafer Scottish Challenge Cup.

I quite like the Tunnocks Caramel Wafer Challenge Cup. Am I mad?

Let’s get one thing straight from the start: having teams from the fifth division of English football (and indeed, from the Welsh, Irish and Northern Irish leagues, not to mention SPL youth sides) is a ludicrous gimmick which merely serves to make the competition look silly. The message it sends is “Our tournament is so poor we need to add Connah’s Quay Nomads to it to make it more sexy.” No disrespect to Connah’s Quay, who should be very proud of how they represented Wales in European competition this Summer, but they’ve played 6 home games at the Deeside Stadium this season, and their biggest attendance was 281. On the surface of things, that’s doesn’t sound like they’re a great catch.

And yet they are – they reached the final of the competition last season, and continued their dominion over Scottish football by knocking Kilmarnock out of the Europa League.

This is hardly a high prestige tournament then, and it’s a genuine distraction from more important matters. It’s not like the Welsh Premier Cup, which was played in midweek so we could give fringe players a game and youth players experience without creating a fixture backlog. This takes place on Saturdays – we have to make up the games, lag behind other sides, and missed out on being TV this week. BT Sport aren’t great paymasters, but we’re losing out on money through the turnstiles too: there’ll be fewer away fans on Tuesday then there would have been today travelling from Chesterfield.

But I’ve sort of enjoyed the tournament so far, and feel conflicted about today’s game, as I was about the previous match. We really don’t need to be playing these games, but that Ayr game was great fun!

Their fans were superb, their media team were terrific people to share a press bench with, and it was an enjoyable, no-pressure match which gave an opportunity to look at some of our youth players in a more taxing environment (and gave me a chance to indulge my inner geek by revising the list of our youngest ever players!)

I have to wonder what our coaching staff’s attitude to it was, though. It was a weakened line-up, but it was coping well. The first substitution, bringing Cian Williams on, was a risk because of his extreme youth, but was actually a very effective change because it shored up the left side of our defence, which Ayr were targetting, and allowed Paul Rutherford to come inside. The way we flooded the team with two more young subs almost felt like the bench had a sudden realisation that they wanted to lose the match, and had to do something quickly. We certainly lost control of the match in the last ten minutes.

It was especially odd to see Bobby Beaumont, a player who has already been on the bench for us, only be given three minutes off the bench in a like-for-like change at centre back. Such a change surely does nothing for him, and potentially disrupts our defensive unit? Ironically, he made a superb last minute block to take the game to penalties: I wonder if he was told off afterwards for saving the match on his debut!

I wondered on air at the final whistle about our strategy in the shoot-out. If we wanted to be eliminated, we could get the kids to take the penalties – there were six debutantes on the pitch by that point, after all – and justify it by saying it gave the youngsters an opportunity to perform under real pressure. But we didn’t and we went through.

So was that a bad thing, and how should we approach today? With Dean Keates in charge, it’s a clean sheet. It should be pointed out that he did rotate for the first two games of his second spell, as we faced Stanford in the FA Cup, but not massively. This isn’t the same thing – the potential for glory and enrichment in this tournament is far lower – but Keates needs to juggle a desire to see what his squad is like with the need to boost their confidence. There’s a tiny part of me thinks he’ll pick a full strength side and justify the odds-on status the bookies are giving us.

The question is, what are our priorities this season? Clearly the first thing we need to do is haul ourselves out of trouble. I want to take it for granted that we’ll do that, but I’ll bet fans of York City thought that would happen too.

Gary Mills shakes his fist impotently at the gods and defies them to relegate his team.

If we do manage it, though, we’ll have to get a move on to make a realistic push for the play-offs. So would we need to realign our priorities? We might not really care about the Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer Scottish Challenge Cup – I don’t recall seeing it as a priority in any other season! However, we might find ourselves in an odd situation if we just pick the youth and fringe players in this competition and the FA Trophy: if we end up pootling along in mid-table, we might wish we’d given ourselves the chance to grab some silverware.

Of course, having a new manager puts a spin on this. Since we were barred from the Welsh Cup, trophies have naturally become something of a rarity. Since LDV Vans Trophy winner Denis Smith left, we’ve had ten managers and only one of them has won anything – Andy Morrell’s FA Trophy triumph.

Previously trophies were naturally more common: Smith also won the Welsh Premier Cup twice, while Brian Flynn took that trophy three times and also won the Welsh Cup once. His predecessor, Dixie McNeil, claimed the trophy too.

We’ve just appointed our 33rd manager, and 9 of his predecessors won a trophy. Obviously, promotion is our aim, but perhaps we shouldn’t underestimate the value of the new man gaining some momentum by becoming number ten. And we might get a nice holiday to the Highlands into the bargain!

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