Supporters of both Sunderland and Hartlepool United don’t expect the Premier League side to be involved in the Checkatrade Trophy next season.
The Black Cats’ Under-23s won 1-0 at Hartlepool last month to close in on qualification from the group stages of the revamped tournament.
But barely 1200 – 400-plus of them supporting Sunderland – were at Victoria Park, as Pools fans became the latest to boycott the Trophy in protest at the inclusion of U23 sides, supplemented by senior players, from clubs in English football’s top two divisions.
Last season, Pools drew in 2000-plus against Sheffield United in the same competition, but none of the 31 Checkatrade Trophy ties played in the last round of fixtures attracted crowds above 1500.
And fans reckon that will sound the death knell of bigger clubs’ involvement.
“I don’t like the new format and I am boycotting the games,” said Pauline McSweeney, of the Hartlepool United Supporters’ Association.
“The big clubs are taking control of our competition and aren’t playing by the rules. Charlie Adam played for Stoke recently and Sunderland had three first teamers in their team.”
Both Hartlepool and Sunderland are back in Checkatrade action tonight, with the Black Cats hosting Notts County and Pools entertaining Rochdale.
Neither club is expecting a big turn-out, however.
Paul Dobson, from Sunderland fanzine A Love Supreme, said: “Next year, I think there will be a lot less Premier League teams accepting the invitation to go into it.
“I don’t think the format will be the same – I think it will go back to the way it was, because the format just isn’t bringing in the crowds.”
But Paul expects interest in the competition to pick up if Sunderland progress a significant distance towards the final at Wembley on April 2.
“As Sunderland fans we don’t have a lot to shout about, so a trip to Wembley is a trip to Wembley, no matter how it comes,” he added.
However, even clubs involved in the Trophy appear to be sceptical about the merits of its new format.
Portsmouth’s official Twitter account posted a photo of their players warming up for their group game against Reading in front of largely empty stands at Fratton Park with the caption: “The atmosphere’s building...”