Surrounded by controversy, protest and boycotts, the Football League Trophy last night returned with an all new format. Despite the introduction of regional group stages and a bizarre decision to ban sides from drawing (more on that later) the most talked about change will continue to be the inclusion of Premier League development squads.
Sixteen clubs with category 1 academy teams were invited to participate, to, in the words of Football League Chief Executive Shaun Harvey, ‘rejuvenate this competition and also assist the development of the very best young players in English football.’ Thankfully the league and Mr Harvey were soon embarrassed when the biggest sides, barring Chelsea, all rejected the invitation. Unfortunately, ten other PL sides, along with several championship teams, agreed to participate.
The common argument from Football League clubs, whether it be chairmen, managers or supporters, is that the move derives from Premier League greed and looks only after the interest of larger clubs. Traditionally, whilst being treated somewhat comically by supporters in part due to the competition’s sponsorship deals, (most famously Johnstone’s Paint) the EFL Trophy has provided League 1 and 2 sides with a real chance of a trip to Wembley.
Now the final could realistically feature two ‘development’ sides, essentially B teams with as many outcast squad players than youth prospects. Within the new guidelines, League sides are required to field at least 5 first team players in their starting 11, whilst the invited teams must select 6 under 21’s.
Unsurprisingly fans of lower league side appear to have had enough. Rather than be thrilled by the idea of spending a weeknight seeing their team play a ‘competitive’ fixture against the what the EFL continue to describe as ‘Everton’ or ‘Southampton’ rather than the reality of ‘Stoke B’, many have stayed away, leading to some stark attendance statistics:
These can be easily compared with the attendances for the 1st round of last years’ competition (last years’ 1st round was a knockout stage)
First of all, looking at the average attendances (this has to be used rather than totals due to 2016/17 having almost double the number of fixtures) the average number of fans attending games at this round dropped by 436. Initially this sounds insubstantial but it is a 30% drop on the equivalent fixtures last year.
Of course, some of this decline could be caused by an increased number of ‘smaller sides’ hosting matches this time round. To compare with last year, I have extracted the fixtures where the same side played at home in both seasons. Leaving us with 8 fixtures, an admittedly small yet interesting sample:
Of the 8 sets of fixtures, five saw significant falls in attendance (highlighted in yellow) from the other 3, Millwall had almost identical numbers, Northampton increased but were promoted last season and Yeovil faced Portsmouth who have a significantly larger away following than Barnet.
Three out of the four sides who were at home both years and played B sides this year saw steep drops in attendance, with Carlisle, Scunthorpe and AFC Wimbledon seeing figures fall 53%, 33% and 63% respectively. The total average of these 8 fixtures is also a substantial 28% lower.
It is worth noting that AFC Wimbledon have shown that they are strongly against the inclusion of B sides, which will have had an impact on supporters. There are however other sides who had attendance records broken last night.
The crowd of 1,540 at Bolton (against Everton B) is the lowest competitive turnout in the stadium’s history, and Port Vale had their lowest competitive game attendance for 30 years with only 1,198 wanting to see a game against Derby’s reserves.
The decision to not only allow development sides, from both Premier League and championship clubs, but let them feature the likes of Emnes, 28 (Swansea) Charlie Adam, 30 (Stoke) and Tony Andreu, 28 (Who scored a hat-trick for Norwich) only degrades the competition further.
The league executives’ argument that this would provide a platform for young English players is dismantled even further when assessing the nationalities of those who featured for the development sides. For example, Andreu, who scored a hat-trick for Norwich is French, Reading’s side included sven foreign born players and Swansea’s starting XI had only three Englishmen
Combining this with the decision to resolve group stage draws with penalty shoot-outs which give the winner an extra point means that this seasons EFL trophy may just be the most ridiculous competition to ever exist in the English game.
Whilst It is usually sad to see empty stadiums and hearing of fans having to miss out on seeing their team; this time it is necessary, the recent changes should not be accepted without a fight. Hopefully, the numbers cannot be ignored.
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