Challenges facing the SPFL over this seasons Challenge Cup

ORGANISING this seasons Scottish Football schedule has been a logistical nightmare for our governing bodies after the COVID-19 outbreak that curtailed our game for five months.

So far, the SPFL and SFA have had to organise a full Premiership card, a reduced Championship to League Two schedule and the Scottish Cup campaign of LAST seasons Semi Final and Final on top of this seasons competition. Throw in a delayed Betfred Cup, European Competition and an increased International schedule factoring in the playoffs for the delayed Euro 2020 Finals and there is barely any time to fit in any rearranged fixtures caused by match postponements for various reasons.

One competition that has been overlooked in this scheduling chaos is the Tunnocks Caramel Wafer Challenge Cup. The big question is will there be a competition this season and, if so, how will it look and how will it be crammed into an already congested schedule?

The first thing the SPFL will need to consider when they get around to discussing the tournaments immediate future is last seasons final between Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Raith Rovers, which was due to be played at the end of March before the pandemic hit Scotland. Will that be played, or will they declare last season’s tournament null and void?

Fitting in a Challenge Cup Final could easily be done as it is just one game. In fact the two clubs, now in the same division, could move their league fixture, currently scheduled for 21 November, to a midweek to make way for the Final, thus not causing any disruption to fellow Championship sides by moving other fixtures. However, that is too logical for the SPFL board.

A more pressing discussion the board will have is this seasons tournament. Currently, the Challenge Cup not only involves sides from the 30 Championship to League Two clubs but eight teams from the Lowland and Highland Leagues, colt sides from the 12 Premiership Clubs, and eight sides from the Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales and the English National League. Normally, the competition would run primarily during the International Football weekends as there is, normally, no League action on those respective dates. However, this seasons Betfred Cup, now kicking off in October along with the rest of the non Premiership sides, is scheduled to be played on the International dates, putting pay to tradition for the competition.

With limited dates available, it is becoming more difficult to see how the Challenge Cup can be fitted in let alone one with 58 teams involved. If the SPFL decide to go ahead with the tournament for the 2020/21 season, they need to consider reverting back to the three Leagues outwith the Premiership only, plus two from the Highland and Lowland Leagues to make it a 32 team competition. The 58 team format received a lot of criticism, with some sides claiming that travel costs were outweighing the prize money for getting through a round, so this is the ideal opportunity to review the Challenge Cup’s future.

Of course, there is the small matter of sponsorship. Tunnocks have invested into the tournament based on a 58 team competition including the colt sides and the cross-border clubs. Will they be willing to see the competition put on hold for a season, or rejigged to a shorter format without these clubs? Serious discussions need to be held to convince the bosses at Tunnocks that it is not going to be feasible in this season to have the Challenge Cup in the way that it has been for the last four seasons.

The Challenge Cup was meant to be a one-off event back in 1990/91 to celebrate the old Scottish Football League’s centenary season. It has since proven to be a popular event for the non-top flight sides, giving those clubs fans a rare opportunity to win some silverware and have a day out for a Cup Final. It would be a shame for those clubs if the tournament had to end.

Unfortunately, we are not living in normal times and this is not a normal season. The non-Premiership sides have only just returned to training this week after agreeing to a reduced league campaign as they couldn’t afford to have games being played behind closed doors. Reduced crowds are not permitted into football grounds until mid-September at the earliest, and the football fixture list is already congested to fit in league games, two cup competitions, Europe and International football.

Ultimately, clubs may decide that the Challenge Cup is one tournament too many and look for it to be put on hold for this season. If they decide that they want an opportunity to win the Tunnocks Caramel Wafer Challenge Cup, they will seriously have to consider at least a temporary alteration to the format if they are to fit the competition into this packed schedule.

J Bleasdale

I am a football fan with a passion for writing, briefly studied journalism before other priorities got in the way. Enjoy blogging as its my way of expressing my thoughts on Scottish Football. Even though I'm an Aberdeen fan primarily, I'm happy to express my impartial views on other clubs.