From the moment that the English Football League announced plans to introduce Category One academy teams into the EFL Trophy, previously designated exclusively for League One and Two teams, there has been hostility. Seen by some as the first step towards the introduction of “B teams” into the Football League pyramid, others have been angered that a competition previously seen as vital for fulfilling fans’ dreams of going to Wembley with their side has been taken away from them.
However, the competition was voted for by Football League clubs. With very few clubs voting against, there must be positives… Right? Well, the competition was in dire straits before the changes. Attendances were plummeting, the EFL couldn’t attract a sponsor for it and more and more clubs were refusing to take it seriously, fielding youngsters instead of competitive first team sides.
This format has sought to change that. With increased prize money from the Premier League, a more exciting group stage at the beginning of the tournament and trips to Premier League stadiums (in theory), the EFL and club bosses think that it is the perfect way to reinject life into the tournament, allowing young talents at top clubs to gain valuable experience and develop at the same time. That’s not quite how it has worked out though.
One of the key arguments for change was fixture congestion for lower league sides, who already play a bare minimum of 48 games a season without the EFL Trophy. Bosses had argued that a revamp was required to ease fixture congestion. Instead, by adding a group stage, a number of sides will now face two extra games, compared to the one, had they gone out in the first round. It is just an early sign that the revamp does not serve the suggested purposes that clubs and fans were keen for before proposals were made.
The fact that many major clubs, including Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City, rejected their invitations to join the competition speaks volumes about the tournament, which has gone from PR disaster to complete catastrophe in recent weeks. Fan reaction has always been negative and following the draw and clarifications, it is hard to see how that perception will ever improve.
Other clubs, like West Ham and Chelsea have accepted, but only after having the rules twisted and changed to suit them. West Ham didn’t want to play any home games at the Olympic Stadium given the costs incurred for a low attendance, so the EFL have allowed them to play all group stage games away from home, directly the opposite from their original suggestions where every academy side would play at least one game at home, in the club’s first team ground. Chelsea weren’t keen on playing games during international breaks, so their group’s fixtures have been rearranged to allow for this.
That means that of the top half of last season’s Premier League table, all 10 were invited to take part, five rejected the invitation, two demanded rule changes, and three accepted the invitation. This is was supposedly their idea, and in the words of Southend United CEO Steve Kavanagh, speaking to 5 live, “the PL teams that we understood were asking for this are now pulling out and this is leaving a very bad taste”, whilst Cambridge CEO Jez George told the BBC that “If you’d told the EFL clubs that maybe some of those clubs wouldn’t even accept the invitation, I’m not sure there’d have even been a vote, let alone a vote being the same way.”
Then there is the fiasco of basic geography. Cambridge face a three hour journey north to Middlesbrough, while Cheltenham face a similar trip to the likes of Blackpool, in this “regional” draw. Such blatant disregard for fans is testament to how much they have been considered in this new format. How many Boro fans will be making the journey down to Cambridge to cheer on their under 23’s on a Tuesday night in October? Conversely, how many Cheltenham fans will travel to Blackpool on a Tuesday night at the end of August?
A quick look at Sky Bet reveals that the five favourite teams for the titles are all “academy teams”, with only one of the ten sides with the best odds of victory being a Football League side: Charlton. Whether this is testament to their quality, or the fact that few League sides will take it seriously is another matter.
Competition rules state that at least six of the starting eleven of an EFL side must have started the previous league game or start the next league game, but many sides are expected to take the competition seriously solely because of the money on offer as prize money for each stage, which has seen a massive increase on past incarnations of the Football League Trophy.
It remains to be seen whether or not the EFL Trophy will be a success. How success will be measured will be questioned; with attendances expected to be low, a sponsor may be hard to attract, and any impact on the development of youth players is unlikely to be seen for a number of years.
What almost all football fans will be united in though will be the desire to ensure that this is not the first step in allowing so called ‘B teams’ to enter the Football League. With the rich history and tradition that our Football League has, with some of the oldest football clubs in the world, to put their existence at risk for the sake of satisfying the big Premier League clubs would be criminal.
Featured Image: All rights reserved by Michael Hulf.