After the late fireworks of last Saturday’s win over Kendal Town, we now know that the spectre of automatic relegation has been banished. That means today’s match against promotion-chasing Workington is important as Cables aim to escape the bottom three completely or, at least, accumulate enough points to avoid the play-offs against a runner-up in a Step 5 league.
The cliché at this stage of the season is to describe the game as the first of “five Cup Finals”. When you think about it, the level of tension this afternoon – both on the pitch and on the terraces – can feel like that. Both the Pesky Bulls and the Reds are desperate for the points for different reasons.
But, as we settle in for a gut-wrenching afternoon at the IP Truck Parts Stadium, spare a thought for the Greater Manchester Schools’ FA’s Under-14 Boys Representative Squad. They were hoping for just one Cup Final – in the English Schools’ FA’s (ESFA) new and controversial ‘Champions Cup’ but have been removed from the competition because of a dispute over when their semi-final against Kent should be played.
The Champions Cups launched by ESFA were controversial for two reasons. The first was that instead of being traditional knockout tournaments they used a ‘Champions League-style’ format, with group stages leading to the knockout phase. The second was the fact that to participate, players needed to pay £25 for their ‘Player Passport’.
I need to declare an interest at this point; despite having lived in Kirkby since 2016, I am still the General Secretary of the Middlesex Schools’ FA, because they have a chronic shortage of volunteers. Middlesex couldn’t and didn’t commit to the Champions Cups, because the South-East regional competition already starts with mini-Leagues. We didn’t feel we would cope with the extra matches, either financially or logistically and objected to the idea of charging players to represent their County.
It turned out that many others agreed. Only 10 out of the 44 County Schools’ FAs entered the U14 Boys Cup and of those, two withdrew after the tournament began. That means that Kent only played one match that counted in their ‘group’ – a 1-1 draw with Sussex. Both went through, but with only three groups – the Northern group of four counties won by Greater Manchester, plus two groups for Southern Counties, one of which finished with two teams in it – there were only six teams eligible for the knockout phase.
Greater Manchester and Merseyside were given ‘byes’ through to the semi-finals, while Kent eliminated Surrey and Sussex beat Hampshire. This is where the trouble starts…
Kent Schools’ FA apparently requested an extension to the limit date for playing their game, away to Greater Manchester. According to Greater Manchester, they were happy enough with that but when ESFA set a new date, the rearranged game gave them a problem. At that point, ESFA awarded Kent a ‘walkover’ instead of extending the deadline a second time. This is what Greater Manchester said about the matter in a short Twitter thread:
“We are hurt and disgusted with the decision of the English Schools’ FA to remove our U14s boys side from the National semi-final vs Kent Schools’ FA. After allowing our opposition to extend the deadline out of fairness and giving them a chance, the same was not granted to our students. These are not students who have misbehaved, cheated or done something wrong. They simply asked for a deadline extension for a final that is in May. The same thing our opposition did, in which was granted for them, but not us. Despite giving adequate time to rearrange. Think of the students who have gone through all the effort to get there. The hard work, cost, travel and dedication. All to be excluded through no fault of their own. What message does this send out. Does this promote school football values? Give them a chance!”
Given that the Finals aren’t due to be played until May, it seems slightly odd that one county was permitted an extension to the limit date while the other wasn’t. Neither the national governing body nor Kent have commented on the matter, which is perhaps unsurprising given that the Secretary of Kent Schools’ FA has served two terms as Chairman of ESFA.
Whatever happens both this afternoon and over the course of the run-in, at least both Prescot and Workington will know that however the season ends, their rewards will have been earned on the pitch. For a squad of schoolboys from Greater Manchester, that is no longer the case.