A few months ago, the Football League, now stupidly rebranded as the English Football League (despite it containing teams from outside of England) made the decision to radically change the Football League Trophy (now called the Checkatrade Trophy), the competition it runs for the 48 clubs in Leagues One and Two, which started this week.
They’ve changed it in order to solve a problem that no-one’s sure exists, and have managed to produce a solution that nobody asked for. The predictable result of this seems to be a complete farce, which has completely ruined what used to be a fun competition.
For years now, the consensus within English football is that, apart from it always being the coach’s fault, the reason England fail to deliver in major international tournaments is because young players at the academies of English clubs need a greater level of coaching and competition than they are currently getting to be able to be ready to step up into the first team.
Having players coming through those academies didn’t hurt Wales in EURO 2016; suggesting that England’s problems aren’t just to do with the skill level of players; but, I guess any programme which improves players is never a bad thing.
A few years ago, the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) was introduced in an attempt to standardise coaching in English academies. An independent auditor assesses each academy and decides which category it should be awarded, with Category 1 being the highest.
The unintended result of this is that it has favoured the richest clubs; and does little to prevent them cherry-picking the best players from lower category academies for a nominal fee. This means that the richest teams have stockpiled talented young players and hope that if they throw enough of them at the wall, one will eventually stick.
The other problem with this plan is that while it means young players should, in theory, be better coached than before, it has done nothing to bridge the gap between academy football and first-team football.
One of the solutions floated has been for Premier League teams to introduce ‘B’ teams into the football league, similar to those that play in the Spanish league system. This has met with a lot of opposition from clubs and fans, who feel that such a move threatens to destroy the integrity of what are viable, popular leagues.
As the English football system is a pyramid, it would be possible for a Premier League B team to be admitted to a league a few tiers below the Football League and work their way up; which nobody would argue with, but the level of football they would be competing in would be too low and the risk of a highly rated starlet being injured being too high for clubs to consider that a realistic option.
Amidst the opposition, the Football League started to backtrack a bit from any idea of introducing B teams into the Football Leagues, but it came up with the compromise of allowing those teams into the Football League Trophy, a plan which was agreed to by Football League clubs last month.
The Football League Trophy (which used to be known as the Johnstone’s Paints Trophy) was a competition for clubs in Leagues One and Two. The competition wasn’t taken as seriously early on, but as teams progress further into the competition, the more the fans start to get engaged and the competition becomes fiercer. Last season’s final between Barnsley and Oxford United had an attendance of close to 60,000 at Wembley, with Barnsley becoming the 26th different winner of it in the 32 years it has been played.
The changes see the number of teams competing increased from 48 to 64, with the additional 16 teams coming from Category 1 academies, which for the most part are the academies of Premier League clubs. The format also changes from it being a knockout competition to 16 groups of 4, with each group containing at least one academy team, plus one team from each of leagues one and two, plus an additional team, with teams being divided between Northern and Southern England.
The Premier League is putting up extra prize money for the competition, and they had to commit to their academy team playing their Football League Trophy games at their first team’s stadium.
That was the big selling point the Football League used to get clubs to agree to the changes. The extra money was what sold it to the clubs, but the chance for their team to play at the likes of Old Trafford, Anfield, the Etihad Stadium or the Emirates Stadium was what the clubs could use to sell the idea to their fans.
So, the Football League announced that they had changed their competition entirely to suit the elite clubs of the Premier League.
But guess what they hadn’t done? Asked any of those clubs if they actually wanted to take part.
Almost immediately there were rumblings that several high-profile teams would decline the invitation. When the draw was made, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham had all decided not to take part for various reasons, but many cited a fear of player burnout with academies having their own competition.
The withdrawals didn’t end there. Despite their relegation from the Premier League, Newcastle’s academy was of a high enough level to be invited, but they said no. Newcastle’s place was offered to Aston Villa, who also said no. Eventually, Championship side Reading accepted a place, along with fellow championship sides Blackburn, Derby County, Wolves, Norwich and Brighton.
So the competition that was changed to accommodate 16 Premier League teams now contains 6 teams from the Championship.
It could have been worse for the Football League had Chelsea not changed their minds and decided to participate having previously indicated that they would also decline any invitation. The Football League actually broke their self-imposed rules in order to get West Ham to participate. The fee West Ham would have had to pay to play their games in the Olympic Stadium, their new home, would have been prohibitively expensive, so the Football League have allowed them to play all of their games away.
The news that they had been sold an idea based on promises made by the Football League that they couldn’t deliver went down badly with teams from Leagues One and Two. It went down ever worse with the fans, who, understandably decided that they didn’t want to see their team playing against academy teams and the Against League 3 campaign called for fans to boycott the competition, saying:
“Asking supporters to boycott is a decision that we took with a heavy heart. No-one wants to deliberately avoid going to watch their team. It’s a horrible feeling. Boycotting doesn’t make you any less loyal or any less of a true supporter. Boycotting means you reject the idea that our teams should become just another tool for the Premier League youth development conveyor belt. Boycotting means you are willing to stand up and be counted to try and improve football for all levels – not for just the select few”
The official line from the Football League when the changes were made was that crowds were declining, so the competition needed rejuvenating.
Well, the average attendance for the first game in last season’s competition was 1870. This week’s average was 1462. Seven games saw fewer than 1000 fans in attendance, something which never happened once last season.
Allowing for the fact that teams inflate attendances to include complimentary tickets given to sponsors, the attendance at Fleetwood v Blackburn u23’s was 392. Fleetwood’s first game of last season’s competition was 4 times that.
The total of the squad numbers worn by the Swansea team last night was greater than the crowd at their game at AFC Wimbledon. Blackpool never bothered producing a programme for their game as not enough people would have been there to buy one for it to be worth it for them.
Port Vale recorded their lowest attendance in 30 years. Millwall, somewhat conveniently, recorded an attendance that was 4 fans more than their lowest since moving to the New Den. Bradford’s average attendance in the league so far this season is over 17,500. Tuesday against Stoke it was 1,144.
Not only has the competition been changed to benefit the Premier League teams (at least those who wanted it), the teams in it are being held to two different sets of rules regarding team selection. League One and Two teams have to abide by rules stating that they have to play a minimum of 5 regular first team players in their starting XI’s, but an academy team only has to have 6 players under the age of 21, leading to situations like this:
Luton Town’s squad of 18 players last night had 14 players under 21, nearly all of whom were English with 5 young players making their debuts. Yet, they could potentially be fined £5,000 (a sizeable amount for them) whilst the u23 teams can make as many changes as they want with impunity. How can that be right?
As for the benefits the England team will get from academy teams playing in this competition; predictably, a lot of those u23 teams contained a sizeable number of foreign players. Stoke picked Charlie Adam, who has 30 caps for Scotland and the Spanish Marc Muniesa, Norwich had the French Tony Andreu score a hat-trick and Reading picked 7 foreign players.
Lower league teams are also worried about the strain the extra games will put on their squads. Whereas Chelsea can stockpile enough players that they can send out 38 of them on loan, many teams operate with squads of around half that many players.
Mansfield Town manager Adam Murray said: “It’s all right for these big clubs coming in, but what people forget to think about is that it’s people’s jobs on the line when earning three points is your living. “It’s not just turn up and have a game for an U23 team, this is people’s lives and we’ve got to go into the weekend now with knocks and bruises.”
While it’s too early to call this experiment a failure; perhaps fans will engage more as the competition continues, it can be said that the early signs are not encouraging.