After the draw unveiled for the inaugural EFL Trophy, the new inception of the Football League Trophy, the English Football League chief executive Shaun Harvey was spin doctoring in a way that even Alistair Campbell, in his days as Tony Blair’s propaganda machine, would have been proud of.
Premier League clubs had been invited to use their academies in the renovated competition but as a secret draw took place it became clear that the idea has not exactly caught on. Only ten top tier clubs will participate and the big guns, the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham, have all opted to sit it out.
Chelsea, with Roman Abramovich never one to let his club miss out on a chance to lift a trophy, and last year’s Premier League champions Leicester will have their kids involved but this marked a disastrous start for a competition that had already seen its formation mired by controversy and apathy.
“Whilst it’s disappointing not to have some of the Premier League sides involved in this season’s competition” said Harvey, trying to scramble around for a positive view “they were all appreciative of the opportunity to participate and could see how the EFL Trophy would benefit their squads in the long term.”
If the clubs that have decided it is not for them do decide to watch, they are likely to be among a very small number. The backlash on social media has been loud while supporter’s groups and fans from clubs who feel threatened from what they see as the thin end of the wedge for the gradual insertion of Premier League development squads into the Football League have been quick to voice their displeasure at the new proposals.
Against League 3, an active campaign against the creeping dilution of the Football League by the Premier League continues to draw support.
The Premier League chairman Richard Scudamore has allayed any fears of B teams entering into the domestic Football League but after the former chairman of the FA Greg Dyke announced plans back in 2014 before they were roundly rejected last year, the concerns haven’t quite gone away.
As the reaction to the EFL Trophy has suggested, it would be politically disastrous to allow B teams to compete in a league that is steeped in 128 years of history, but many worry it is the natural next stage of the Premier League, with its outrageous riches and cash revenues, in its endeavour to dominate the English domestic game.
For now, or at least on a trial basis for a year, Harvey’s EFL Trophy appears to be a compromise under the premise that it will hand Premier League’s reserves meaningful experience in competitive matches. It is a good idea in theory, but quite what Everton’s and Swansea’s under-23s will learn playing from playing Cheltenham and Plymouth in front of a sparse crowd on a midweek evening that they won’t in the newly devised Premier League ‘2’ is uncertain.
The new group stage format is difficult to comprehend with penalty shootouts being used to hand out bonus points in the event of a draw, while the supposed regional draw has led to chaos. West Bromwich Albion face an over-3 hour trip to Gillingham while Cambridge are in the same ‘northern’ group as Middlesbrough despite the 3 ½ hour journey. Bolton are faced with the 280-mile round trip to Cheltenham in the “northern” section.
The prospect of making such a trip to watch a team in action against an under-23 side in a competition that was already so low on many club’s priority lists simply isn’t going to inspire many to fork out the money for admission. That is the argument of Cambridge United chief executive Jez George who admitted that his club may not have voted for the proposals had they known the bigger Premier League clubs weren’t going to be involved.
Southend United chief executive Steve Kavanagh said on BBC Radio 5 live that the withdrawal of the ten Premier League sides left a “bad taste” while Darragh MacAnthony, chairman of Peterborough United, said there was “no chance” he would have voted in favour of the reform had he known the line-up would have been formed by Championship under-21 sides.
MK Dons and Norwich will be the two academy teams in Peterborough’s group while Barnet of League Two will make up the other side; it is hard to imagine too many supporters going through the turnstiles at London Road for those games in what is already essentially England’s fourth competition, leaving MacAnthony having to find a way to cover lighting, staff, stewarding and policing fees and all the other areas that are required to stage an extra mid-week game.
The likes of Mansfield, facing mundane ties with Port Vale, Doncaster and Derby reserves, Carlisle, who get Fleetwood, Oldham and Blackburn reserves, and Leyton Orient, with Southend, Stevenage and Brighton reserves awaiting them, will have to do the same with the eventual reward of a trip to Wembley now further away than ever.
With 64 teams competing instead of 48 the showpiece final is now 9 games away in contrast to the 5 matches Oxford United played on the route to last year’s eventual final defeat to Barnsley.
The coach who took Oxford to that final, Michael Appleton, has voiced his opposition to the competition’s reform and it is highly unlikely that there will be a repeat of the 59,000 that were in attendance for that final if it is Chelsea’s reserves playing Swansea’s reserves next April.
The Football League Trophy was in need of reinvigoration but tinkering with a group stage by inputting farcical rules whilst adding to an already dangerously bloated fixture list, something the FA has already suggested reducing, before scrambling around for clubs to take part was not the way to go about it.
Speaking personally, I was delighted to witness my team, Crewe Alexandra, lift the old inception of the trophy against Southend United at Wembley back in 2013. But now, in a group with Accrington, Chesterfield and the reserves of Wolverhampton Wanderers, I couldn’t be more apathetic. The matches will serve no purpose, in front of lousy, disinterested crowds, and while Shaun Harvey was right to say the competition was in need of reinvigoration, this wasn’t the way.