Sports Editor Lewis Wright looks at the current state of English football by reviewing the new look ‘EFL Trophy’ and examining just why it is that the competition has received such negative feedback from the majority involved.
At a time where English football could barely boast to be at its most prosperous, the nation’s Football Association (FA) have decided to do away with the traditional structure of the Football League Trophy and modify it in a way that appears to have received little support from many who are involved in the beautiful game.
The EFL (English Football League) Trophy is what the competition is now referred to, an acronym that is being used to Americanize the event in a similar way to the EPL (English Premier League) in an attempt to increase the division’s appeal to key sponsors and partner organisations both at home and abroad.
That said, it is not the name or the branding of the competition that is the issue, but rather the questionable format that the FA have adopted for the first time ahead of the 2016/17 edition of the trophy.
The EFL confirmed back in July that there would be 64 teams going head-to-head throughout the season, with all sides aiming to lift the trophy at Wembley Stadium on April 2, immediately after the competition’s ‘showpiece final’ has reached its conclusion.
A considerable 16 of those sides have entered the trophy for the very first time, and they will be welcomed to the tournament as ‘invited teams’. However, of the first 16 teams that were invited to compete in the EFL trophy, six of those clubs turned down the opportunity to field an ‘under 23’ team, including Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham, and both Manchester clubs.
The six teams that rejected the chance to provide their youngsters with the experience of playing against League One and Two sides from their various regions were replaced by the likes of Brighton, Blackburn and Reading. However, the competition’s appeal had already started to fade by the time the first ball was kicked back in August.
Speaking to BBC Three Counties Radio, Milton Keynes (MK) Dons manager Karl Robinson has openly voiced his frustration at the trophy’s format, noting one particular regulation that appears to be something of a contradiction to the whole purpose of including academy/ U23 teams. The Trophy’s organisers state that the clubs entering Category One academy sides must field at least six players under the age of 21, whereas League One and Two managers such as Robinson have the responsibility to select five ‘first-team’ players from the start.
And it has not taken long for the 36 year-old’s fellow managers to consider ways around such a contradictory rule, with Bradford boss Stuart McCall replacing goalkeeper Colin Doyle after just two minutes of their latest fixture against Bury in an effort to avoid any repercussions for not fielding the suggested number of ‘first-team’ players.
Aside from the obvious contradictions of rules such as those mentioned above, organisers have also opted to make the rather bold call of changing the number of points that a team can pick up following a match that is level after 90 minutes. If a match finishes all-square at the competition’s group stage, clubs are able to double the number of points they leave the ground with by competing in a penalty shootout, with the winner collecting that illusive bonus point.
The importance of the penalty shootout then increases further as the competition advances to the knockout stage, with the usual 30 minutes of extra-time that precedes penalties no longer in existence for the EFL Trophy.
I do not doubt that young academy players will improve both physically and psychologically by competing against experienced professionals from the Football League. However, it appears to me that organisers have overlooked the clubs for which this Trophy is most important, instead focusing on some of the country’s largest clubs, who already boast considerable wealth to go alongside their financially assured academies that will prosper whether they are a part of the competition or not.
The very fact that League One and Two clubs are being forced to ignore their own academy products is a sign of the organiser’s obsession with profit and appeal, as opposed to their passion for football development in this country from top to bottom.
And if finances and marketability are what could prove to be the decisive factor in the Trophy’s format, then the fact that just 1,355 people showed up to see Portsmouth draw 2-2 with Reading U23s – over 15,500 less than against Doncaster a few days earlier – might just make it that bit clearer that supporters have lost interest in the competition’s new structure after just two match days.
“Don’t make it just a development competition for Premier League teams when clubs like us work so hard to develop our own players.” – Karl Robinson, MK Dons manager.