This midweek saw most sides involved in this year’s EFL Trophy play their second game of the newly formatted competition, and asking whether or not the spirit of the ‘game’ is being respected is a valid question in my mind.
All fans know the history; Johnstone’s Paint were ceasing their sponsorship of the competition after a decade of involvement and with interest in the Trophy falling, the Football League – or EFL for rebrand fanatics – decided to do something different with the tournament this year.
Some would say ‘in their wisdom’ – many others wouldn’t.
Well the end result was a sponsorless trophy that was to involve Premier League Academy sides on a one year trial – with the Premier League putting up a donation of £1million for the privilege of being involved, and largely those sides ‘invited’ into the competition wouldn’t be the ones to mostly financially profit from that was the plan.
The aim had numerous arguments behind it, and the majority of Football League clubs eligible for the Trophy fell behind those reasons, namely:
Quality real pitch time for Under 23 prospects;
Aide the development of home grown talent for home nations;
Provide a significant financial boost to League One and Two sides competing in the competition.
Point 1 is largely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, good players, with the appropriate talent and the right mentality will make it whether it’s the Premier League or a successful semi pro career if that’s their level and they get the breaks – can very easily name check Jamie Vardy and Andre Gray and they aren’t alone.
Point 2 is the main selling point and even though in reality they are the Football League involving Welsh clubs (I don’t think they forgot, they might not have wanted to laugh at the rebrand consultants for not noticing) – the EFL largely focused on why Wales were so good at the recent European Championships, and why erm, England remained, shall we say, so crap.
Point 3 was the carrot and with the redistribution of wealth an issue in the game, I don’t think anybody can blame clubs for looking at a financial bottom line to see the trial happen and then see what happened and see how fans took to it.
Fans were quick to point out they wouldn’t take it because there were that many caveats to team selections that every ‘Academy’ could include a maximum of four seasoned professionals…and those reactions only became more inflamed once the Football League announced that most of the sides they had banked on being involved weren’t interested and they had to delve into the Championship to fill the 16 quota.
The nonsense didn’t end there though – didn’t see this coming – a sponsor in the shape of Checkatrade.com was later announced which did boost the overall prize fund to £1.95million from memory.
Now the Football League have gone to lengths to talk up the positives of this for the next generation of English talent and the financial benefits to those clubs in League One and Two, but if the intangible benefit of League One and Two clubs in facilitating ‘real football’ for Academy graduates who aren’t yet ready for first team action or maybe even loan spells just yet is supposed to be a brighter future for the English national team – and that justifies an increased risk of not even having the one and most plausible route to Wembley outside of the league Play Offs themselves – then it’s an argument about the wider spirit of the game.
The spirit argument contends that the Academy sides involved have no real purpose or intention of securing victory – put up a test yes and improve game by game – but they are there to give predominantly 16-23 year old’s the potential of one or two (you’d assume rotation and heavy substitutions) opportunities to get 90 minutes or more under their belts to give them a taste of the football they want to come in the future years of their career.
With that 90 minutes or more under their belts, some will show they need more training before getting a second opportunity, some will show they should be given the opportunity of three months out at League One or Two level and some would show they are ready for half a season out, or a month/three months at Championship level possibly.
That is the spirit benefit – education, development, open some eyes to non Academy football etc.
That was the plan surely, and the new Under 23 level (an increase of two years on what in 2015/16 was Under 21) was just a nod by the Football League to Premier League sides who have players aged 23 nowhere near their first team level that games could be helpful to as late developers.
Apparently not and that was clear from the caveats…three overage outfield players plus one overage goalkeeper if you want – and it wasn’t needed.
The new Under 23 Premier League 2, and Cup changes this season for Under sides gives more than enough games for injured players to get match minutes, for overage but non playing players to get match minutes to aide fitness – and let’s not sudden believe behind closed doors games have been suddenly outlawed to achieve just that – get senior players minutes and if they choose to treat them as non competitive and not put in the same kind of intensity or effort, well that’s on them.
Making it a true Under 21 invite Trophy, with no overage caveats whatsoever would’ve complied with the true spirit that the new format and Academy involvement was sold on – and they failed, arguably on the presumption that Premier League in the title is everything and the fix for all ills in football.
Match day one showed that – the main headlines being the fan boycott of the games clearly having an effect on attendance levels as the format enacted devalues the competition as a means of excitement, and whilst manager’s were all coy and sure to say the right things and give it a chance, you have to wonder what were the private thoughts of Exeter’s Paul Tisdale and Wycombe’s Gareth Ainsworth as they named themselves on the bench to enable a senior to fully rest up with injuries etc.
There were also three 15 year olds on the bench and one, Connor Tomlinson, became Luton Town’s youngest ever debutant.
Great for them, great for the future and their development but wasn’t it meant to be the invited Academy sides thinking five years down the line?
And on that subject, after the first set of Group games the BBC cherry picked a few social media comments with Leicester City and Norwich City featuring.
Leicester’s selection for the opening game drew the following comment.
‘A 36yr old Pole, 29yr old Tunisian & 27yr old Spaniard. So much for playing ‘young English talent’
As for Norwich.
‘Tony Andreu, a 28 year old French midfielder, has scored for Norwich U23s. Can’t wait for his debut for England.’
But that’s the exact problem, the Football League sold League One and Two fans the ‘wider spirit’ argument and fans at least expected (some wouldn’t have) that spirit to be respected.
But those Academy sides involved are not bound to that, they are operating within the rules and a 36 year old Polish player, 29 year old Tunisian, 27 year old Spaniard and 28 year old French midfielder, the Football League made perfectly allowable despite banging the English national side and future drum.
So you can’t blame those clubs, or criticise those players – the selling points applicable to League One and Two clubs don’t necessarily tally with what they are hoping to get out of their involvement.
Yes youth experience will figure highly, but it’s not the only interest…more competitive action for players coming back from injury, and more competitive action (compared to other Under 23 competition) for players who need a run out for fitness who don’t feature in the first team.
So it’s no surprise to see match day two see a similar repeat in attendance figures and selections.
The best supported match was Swindon Town v Oxford United with a crowd of 2,698, followed by Sheffield United and Walsall with a crowd of 2,619, whilst the lowest was Barnet v Norwich Under 23 with just 457.
Of the Under 23 sides playing, seven attracted fans of over the 1,000 mark out of the sides on display, whilst 13 of the non Academy involved clashes did…with Chesterfield and Accrington narrowly missing out on making that 14 with an attendance of 976.
All six ties that saw more than 2,000 fans didn’t not include an Academy side.
Lowest post war attendances will continue to be a talking point, and I believe (I stand to be corrected) with Port Vale having one of the better attendance figures for match day one, it was still a 30 year low for them, and for match day two I believe Colchester registered their lowest figure in history.
To be honest, Portsmouth in League Two admirably prove the fan point.
Their attendance for Reading U23 was 1,355 – yet they had Fratton Park rocking with 16,950 for their League game against Doncaster Rovers three days previously.
A 90 odd percent drop off and it became Portsmouth’s lowest post war total ever – told you that line would be a talking point!
Last night’s @CheckatradeTrpy turnouts.
Only 18.7% of average attendances.
? joshua jones (@joshuapsjones) 5 October 2016
As can be said, not all clubs dropped off by that level of % but it still proves the point.
@AgainstLeague3 and #BTeamBoycott would’ve been pleased with their efforts, as Shaun Harvey references below, 43,000+ attended match day one fixtures, but match day two saw a 12% drop on that figure.
Ahead of kick off, the Football League were in full flow talking up the competition, and pointing out that match day one saw 10 of the 16 matches won by League One and Two clubs and with stats like five debutants found themselves on the scoresheet.
Shaun Harvey, EFL Chief Executive, spoke about the negativity.
‘I think there were a few reasons to be honest, but a lot of the negativity stemmed from a misunderstanding of the competition and the reasons for the changes that were made. The Checkatrade Trophy was referred to as an under 23 tournament by some sections of the media but invited teams have to field six players under the age of 21 so that caused a bit of confusion. Similarly, I think the Whole Game Solution, which is a completely separate initiative, muddied the waters a little particularly around the issue of B teams taking part in the EFL. However, I hope that we clarified the EFL`s position by announcing that B teams would not continue to be discussed as part of the Whole Game Solution. Finally, I think that we need to be clear that the revised format of the Checkatrade Trophy is part of the EFL`s long-term commitment to help the nation produce more and better homegrown players. It has also been designed to help reinvigorate the competition as it was widely felt that it had lost some of its purpose in previous seasons.’
The EFL also referred to it as an Under 23 competition, and a caveat saying six players under 21 have to be included doesn’t make it an Under 21 sold competition, when four of the others can be in their 30’s.
I also don’t think B Teams confused the issue – it was pretty clear – and he ends by saying the wider spirit of the game argument once more.
‘We take a holistic view that improving the fortunes of the England national team is a collective ambition for everybody involved in football, whether it`s ourselves, the FA or the Premier League. A stronger, high-performing national team is ultimately going to have a positive impact on the domestic game, whether in terms of participation, commercial opportunities or a boost in attendances – it will help all areas. At the EFL we take pride in taking a full part in trying to address the specific issues that have been identified and will continue to look at ways we can give England`s brightest young talent the opportunity to gain experience and develop their skills against EFL clubs.’
So as above, why allow it to be anything but a strict Under 21 competition, or make it Under 23 competition but categorically state no overage players and even younger players with ten first team senior starts cannot take part, as they are clearly in first team plans or gaining experience and aiding their development in other ways?
As for the attendance issue.
‘I certainly hope not, but in a numbers sense the attendances were actually up on last year as we had 42,000 people attend a first round game compared to 29,000 last year. Now, I accept that there were more games this time around and that there were some games where the attendance was far lower than we would like, but now is not the time to judge the competition after just one round of games. We recognise that this is a new format and that it takes time for fans to develop an affinity with the competition and we expect interest in the competition to develop as we move towards the knock out stages.’
More games = more fans attending – who’d have thunk it?
Talking more about the aims, he also spoke of match day 1 stats and the number of debutants.
‘I was. Some of the stats from the first round suggest that the format is at least succeeding in meeting the objective of giving young players a chance as a total of 24 players aged 15-18 made their debuts for League One and League Two clubs, while over 80% of those in the starting line-ups of the invited teams were under 21.’
With Academy sides not yet dominating groups and fans obviously concerned about the impact on a potential trip to Wembley, he added.
‘I`m not sure but it will be interesting to see how things progress. Ten of the 16 first round matches were won by EFL clubs so the early signs are that teams from League One and Two are most likely to progress, but the reality is that this is a competition and therefore the best teams, or at least the most competitive teams will progress through the rounds. We know that fans of all clubs love to see their team`s progress in cup competitions and we have seen some great finals in recent seasons with fans enjoying a day out at Wembley. The prize of a Wembley Cup Final appearance can be worth over £400,000 to clubs so I`m sure teams will want to progress as far as they can.’
Ending with selections, fans in midweek of League One and Two clubs had the pleasure of seeing Oumar Niasse on show for Everton, Wolves had familiar faces on show like Andy Lonergan, Silvio, George Saville and Nouha Dicko involved, Stoke had the likes of Phil Bardsley, Marc Muniesa, Charlie Adam and Mame Biram Diouf involved.
And it didn’t stop there as most sides on my brief look included at least two overage players completely against spirit of what fans had been sold. A couple with just one, and only Middlesbrough and Southampton maybe with a true Under side on display.
Luton fans may have been the happiest, seeing their side take a two nil victory over West Brom who fielded Boaz Myhill, Jonas Olsson, Craig Gardner and Callum McManaman in their starting eleven.
I wouldn’t expect things to change in the coming Group games, and for those Under 23 sides who progress past the group stage, you can only begin to imagine the kind of selections that might be seen then.
We’re already seeing clubs make a stand in selections, having mentioned Luton above a couple of times, Trophy rules state League One and Two clubs cannot make unlimited changes to their squad’s from the previous game – Luton gave debuts to five players in breach of the rule and were fined I believe £5000, or will be. For match day two they made eleven changes…and won.
Bradford substituted goalkeeper Colin Doyle after 3 minutes to get round the ‘five player rule’ with assistant manager Kenny Black quipping – ‘he didn’t have a particularly good first 45 seconds.’
Luton can expect a fine again, Bradford possibly, but they are rule breaches…Academy sides are only doing what’s within the rules aren’t they.
Academy sides will say the involvement of seniors in the matches will be an aide to their youngsters, passing on their experience, talking to them during games, helping and advising…but again, was that the spirit of what fans were sold at the beginning?
Arguably the answer is no, and with only a couple of group games left to go now before the knockout stages, it’s not going to be too long at all before the future of the competition is up for debate and is this trial extended for another year, are more Academy sides brought in – does the financial pot grow enough to placate clubs in League One and Two?
And even if they are placated, with fans already showing growing displeasure, will the Football League find themselves between a rock and hard place when it comes to ending the tournament outright or keeping it going with £££ signs when even clubs themselves don’t take it seriously moving forward.
For Academy sides, they may also be questioning their future involvement as with clear public relations to consider with fan protests, if opposition clubs no longer give their ‘six Under 21’ the kind of challenge they were hoping for – does it serve a purpose for them moving forward?
We’ve heard plenty of negatives from League One and Two clubs so far, quite rightly. I think it’ll be interesting to hear the positives possibly from the fans of those Academy sides taking part this year.