Carlisle United 3 Aston Villa U21 1: This, we have to conclude, is what it’s all about: a dead-rubber game in an empty ground against someone’s Under-21s. Maybe we can get through this awful year after all.  

Please, don’t listen to the naysayers. Don’t heed the small-minded participants such as Charlton manager Lee Bowyer, who called this a “stupid cup”. 

Cups can’t be stupid, silly. They’re just bits of metal.  

Anyway. This being 2020, let’s look for the life-affirming parts of Carlisle United’s last venture in the Papa John’s Trophy before they depart it for another season. 

They won with relative ease. Against the fruits of Aston Villa’s academy, they involved a number of young players and gave more of those from the fringes useful time. Gavin Reilly got that elusive first goal and, in Josh Dixon, we had the genuinely heartening sight of a promising midfielder making his first-team debut after two years of injury trouble. 

May last night, which included a free-kick assist, some other composed play and even the man-of-the-match award, herald a long-overdue change in 19-year-old Dixon’s luck. May good things come his way as repayment for all the rehab, all the lonely days and nights that must have come as a consequence of consecutive cruciate knee ligament injuries.

As well as that, there was…ah, who are we kidding? The upsides, I’m afraid, stop there. The moment you take the broader view, and consider this competition for what it is, the aftertaste turns sour.  

It is, with apologies to the new sponsors, the topping nobody wanted, the wedge of pineapple accidentally added to your meat feast. Given the dismal few months we have just witnessed at the top of football at the time of the lower-leagues’ crisis, the return of the Trophy feels particularly off.

The EFL have been busily promoting the stand-alone importance of their league and clubs in a spell when bail-out help has been sorely needed. Quite right too. In the next breath, though, excitable PR has been undertaken on behalf of a competition which actively undermines those clubs and those levels. 

Observers of the lower-league cup were last week, for instance, invited to celebrate a goal scored in it by a £35m Wolverhampton Wanderers signing. The connection between all this jabbering and the lower-leagues’ desperation in the face of an elite who won’t come to help unless they can reshape the future of the game for their own greedy advancement…is it not obvious by now? 

This has always been the bitter context for this format since 2016, and is brought more harshly into the light by the damage wrought by Covid-19. Even pre-pandemic, fans did not like the fact their modest cup competition had been bought up for the benefit of the Premier League. They did not like it being re-sold to them with a new bunch of debatable merits.

“This competition ain’t for clubs like us,” Bowyer said. This is the sad conclusion to something which, not so long ago, was entirely and exclusively for clubs like us. It is now for them, and no amount of free pizzas offered to journalists as a prize for calling the competition by its sponsored name should change that.

It is a training exercise for clubs like Aston Villa, and an enabler for clubs who want to sign all the young players. It consolidates Big Power in football where, if the last few months have shown us anything, more power is never enough. 

So apologies for getting this far into a match report without saying much about the game. We’ll get there in a moment. The point is this: if you value clubs like Carlisle, and the communities they inhabit, you can’t also see major-club Under-21s in the Trophy as a pure and good thing. 

You can’t take offence at the opportunist suits who want B Teams in the league, yet also see this cup format as a benign matter. Simple.  

Ok, then. The match. Villa’s kids started at counter-attacking pace but little of note had happened until, in the 16th minute, Connor Malley went down with a foot injury. As Carlisle assessed that injury blow, there was the happier sight of Dixon stepping to the touchline: finally a first-team player. 

A ripple of applause greeted the midfielder from the Blues contingent in the Main Stand. A while later, Dixon showed one particularly neat piece of invention with a lofted, left-footed pass which almost put Jack Armer in.

This was all excellent to see. Either side of that, Micah Obiero had been denied by keeper Akos Onodi and then, amid a generally bright individual performance, supplied a more successful finish to put a much-changed Carlisle XI ahead, after Onodi had parried Omari Patrick’s header following a Gime Toure run down the left. 

Toure, next, almost marked his return with a free-kick goal, but was denied by the keeper’s fingertips, before Tyreik Wright almost replied with a Villa set-piece. After the break, Toure headed an Obiero cross against the bar and Taylor Charters skimmed a 20-yarder wide. Carlisle remained on top, and finally got a second when Dixon’s free-kick was nodded in at the back post by Toure. 

Dixon’s set-piece delivery, and his ease at taking responsibility with them, were among the encouraging aspects of his memorable night. Toure continued menacing Villa’s youngsters, while Reilly, after so much ill-fortune in front of goal lately, will not care that this was a largely meaningless contest in which he broke his duck, the striker showing anticipation at a defensive mistake before driving forward and keeping his composure to drill home. 

Villa eventually got one back, Harrison Sonha arriving in space to dispatch a left-sided cross as small consolation. The final whistle then went. United were out. They already were. So were Villa. Margheritas all round.