Q&A with Carlisle Utd chief on the club's controversial Checkatrade Trophy decision


Jon Colman asks Carlisle United chief executive Nigel Clibbens why the club went against supporter opinion and again voted in favour of B Teams in the Checkatrade Trophy

As the club/CUOSC survey showed that 98 per cent of fans were against B Teams continuing in the Trophy, yet the club still voted the other way, what was the point of the survey?

From our perspective, there were three points to the survey. Number one was that we needed an objective assessment of the strength of feeling, rather than just the strong voices of a few people. We wanted a broader view of how fans felt. Number two - we also wanted to know what that view was, and whether the strength of feeling was as anti as was portrayed. Number three - we wanted an ability to go to the EFL and present the real issues that clubs like us were faced with in terms of supporters' views of this; to say that this is what our supporters are telling us, and now how are you going to help us resolve the issues they've got?

It was about putting that on the table for the EFL. Clearly the participation of academy teams was a very black-and-white one. There were no shades of grey and that's the final decision we went with. But we needed answers on those points.

But shouldn't you have gone with your fanbase when the sentiment was so strong?

We took the view that we had to do what was in the best interests of the club, for that competition. Nobody was saying everything was fantastic about the competition. We felt it was in the overall interests of the club that we take what was on offer and do something good with it.

We took a broader view than not liking the competition and what it stood for. That was the rationale behind that decision.

Does going against fan opinion run the risk of alienating those supporters, and causing some longer-term damage?

I said before that, when the trial was under way, it had driven a gap between fans and clubs. So we're under no illusions about that, in respect of this competition. What we have to do as a board is what's right for the club overall. If we can show we're using this money for good - specifically allocating it to younger players, which we probably wouldn't have been able to do otherwise, and it would have meant coming out of Keith Curle's budget - we feel that's better for the club.

The competition has shown before that it didn't attract the fans in great numbers other than towards the end, and when the prospect of Wembley was close. Something had to change. But attendance figures...you can't put a positive spin on that at all. Anybody that tries to present it in a positive way, they're not doing anybody any favours.

Hasn't Shaun Harvey [the EFL chief executive] had a go?

The final was fantastic, lots of people were there, and towards the end there were some good attendances, but especially in the early stages and in games against Under-23 teams, there were records broken at almost every club in the wrong way. Nobody can take anything positive out of that at all.

Isn't the next step to all this to have a game in an empty stadium, as long as the cash is guaranteed? And would that be worth it, when your lifeblood doesn't want to come and watch?

It's important to separate this competition from the rest of what the club does. It's a standalone competition. It is what it is. If we end up with a situation where the gates don't recover, but there's more and more cash for participation, that ultimately will devalue the competition to such an extent that it will be seen as valueless.

Isn't it already valueless for a lot of people, and hasn't it already failed as a result?

It's clear that people don't want to watch, or a large proportion of fans don't want to watch, B Teams in that competition. We respect that view. Has it already happened [failed]? No it hasn't - at Wembley there have been big crowds, and also at games towards the end. But the issue is the early rounds. No doubt about that.

Many people called this early on last season - the Premier League would offer clubs even more money second time round to ensure an unpopular idea was extended for their own benefit. That's not healthy, is it?

Nobody's saying it's healthy. Part of the survey was we wanted to know what the sentiment was. It's clear the competition has to improve in terms of its football status.

But isn't it the principle that turns people off, no matter how they tinker with the rules? They feel the involvement of B Teams devalues the competition and turns their clubs into training cones for the big boys?

For some people that might be the case.

Do you think they can be won over?

I don't know - that can only happen if they can accept what they see taking place on the pitch. The development of the new competition at the start meant there was a big hill to climb. The rationale for the competition - what it was going to be like, the rules - a whole host of things came together in a way that undermined the competition. Those have started to be wound, but to a degree the damage has been done, and that sets you back.

The early propaganda, that the inclusion of B Teams was designed to help the future England team, seems to have disappeared. Now it seems purely about helping the big clubs...

From our club's perspective - it's about giving us the chance to get to Wembley, and giving us more money than we would have had to make our club better. We will try and beat every team that we're put in front of.

No doubt the way the changes came in, the way it was talked about and the way things developed all created a problem. That is having to be wound, and it's going to take some time to do that. No doubt concerns over the Under-23s being a stepping stone to having B Teams in the EFL created an environment that didn't help, hugely.

I can understand that. But I said right at the start that I didn't see that as a stepping stone and it went away. I still don't see it as a stepping stone. There is no support for that. That's clear.

Could you give a cast-iron guarantee that the club would never vote in favour of B Teams in the League, whatever the size of the cheque?

I wouldn't personally support that.

But what if the cheque was substantial, as it has been to get the Trophy and the Elite Player Performance Plan through? Or is there a red line on this?

For me, personally, that would be a red line.

Regarding B Teams in the Trophy this time, who among the club's directors voted in favour and who voted against?

To reveal that would be unfair to individuals. But it's fair to say it wasn't just CUOSC who voted against it.

Back to the survey - why should people ever fill in another one, when the club has done the opposite of what an overwhelming number of people wanted? Their views haven't counted for anything...

They've counted in the ways I've said.

But in terms of the decision and the outcome, they haven't...

They did, because three members of the board were swayed to follow that view. Not enough to swing the vote, but enough to make it very marginal. It was by no means unanimous.

On other aspects of what people said, we were able to try and influence how the deal was put together for the overall rules.

In terms of filling out surveys and things like that, in other instances we've shown we will continue to show we will respond as positively as we can to the feedback we get. We're working together with the supporters groups and supporters on other things.

We talked to them and got their feedback about season tickets specifically, about extending the offer on season tickets. They are recent examples of where, notwithstanding the specific surveys, we've gone to the CUSG [Carlisle United Supporters' Groups] group and asked them for their thoughts on other issues. We've reacted and followed their views in those instances.

I do understand and respect the view that on that particular one [the Trophy], people gave their views and we didn't fall in line. But we're not going to be able to fall in line and follow the wishes of fans on every single item.

That's a difficult position we are in as board; sometimes you've got to make decisions that aren't popular, but all you can do is explain your reasons why and the fact we're trying to do things in the best interests of the club.

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