by Tom Walsh
There is such a thing as a “good day to bury bad news”. It’s the moment where a particular event has taken the public’s entire focus so they won’t really pay attention to other minor breaking news stories.
Former Labour advisor Jo Moore famously said the September 11th terrorist attacks were a good opportunity to bury councillors’ expenses while disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong’s federal case was dropped as the USA went into party mode in the build-up to the Super Bowl. There are certain moments when controversial decisions can be announced without anyone really realising.
Amid the euphoria and rioting of the start of Euro 2016 and the implosion of the UK’s economy following a Brexit vote in proceeding weeks, a substantial change to a lower league competition is probably not high up on everyone’s priorities. However, this decision could have repercussions for years to come.
The Football League (sorry, the EFL as we’re now supposed to call it now as if it’s a cold-calling insurance company) in their infinite wisdom has decided that the Football League Trophy (formerly the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy) needs a shake-up. And how do they plan to do this? Why, with Premier League B-teams of course!
Yes, that’s right fans of League One and Two clubs you will finally be realising the dream of facing Sunderland Reserves on a cold Tuesday night. But don’t worry because it’ll be for the benefit of the national team, you know, that one that got knocked of a major tournament by a country with a population the size of Leicester despite all being Premier League millionaires? Yeh, that team.
From the start of the 2016/17 season, and currently on a “trial basis”, League One and Two sides will be joined by the under-23 sides of 16 Premier League and Championship sides with Category 1 Academy status. It was originally meant to be for under-21s side but this has been altered and also allows four over-age squad members to play.
Details of the competition, conveniently released on the same day as the publication of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War, highlighted an even more convoluted plan than previously thought. The EFL Trophy begins with 16 groups of four split regionally with an “invited” academy side present in each group. Those teams will be obliged to play a home game at the stadium of the first team and to top it all off, if a match ends in a draw it is decided on a penalty shoot-out with the victor receiving an extra point.
Campaign group Against League 3 is already proposing a supporters boycott of the competition and is even lobbying clubs to withdraw from the competition entirely. However, the decision made by the Football League (I refuse to call it the EFL) followed a vote of the 48 clubs in League One and Two and, at time of writing, 20 clubs revealed that they had voted FOR the introduction.
There seems to have been no fan consultation on the matter and announced at a time when everyone is pre-occupied with the Euros. It once again highlights the utter disdain that the powers that be in English football have for the average supporter.
There seems to be a constant need to change competitions to suit the needs of the wealthiest clubs in the country. An urge to pander to international audiences or to squeeze every last penny out of our beloved game.
Whether it’s smashing a corporate sponsor on to the FA Cup, putting the final of our showpiece competition at a time when anyone catching the train north can’t get home from, or the constant moaning that we need a winter break because Jack Wilshere is always injured or even the absurdly proposed Game 39, the taking apart of our game piece by piece is what seems to be the end goal.
The Football League Trophy may not be the most popular competition or highest priority in a lower league side’s season but introducing Premier League B-teams is robbing supporters of these clubs a potential big day out at Wembley.
You only have to look at the list of alumni that have won the trophy in recent years – Barnsley, Crewe Alexandra, Peterborough United, Luton Town, Chesterfield, Carlisle, the list goes on. Fans of these clubs do not see success often so when it does roll around it is something that can be treasured forever. Would that be the same if Chelsea Under-23s were squaring off against Manchester United Under-23s? And what exactly would be the point?
An argument for the introduction of B-teams into the Football League Trophy is that it will help players develop better than playing in the current under-21 league. The English Football League chief executive Shaun Harvey proudly triumphed: “The new format is intended to rejuvenate this competition and also assist the development of the very best young players in English football.”
However, this only goes to highlight the flaws elite clubs have in nurturing young talent with the likes of Chelsea, in particular, hoovering up players from the lower leagues with no intention of playing them and then selling them off for a potential profit.
It is not the fault of lower league sides that the England national side fails at every major tournament and it’s not their fault Premier League teams are outclassed at every stage of the Champions League by continental opposition. It is those teams that will bear the brunt of this “experiment” which will no doubt lead the way for more calls to integrate B-teams into the footballing pyramid.
There was nothing wrong with how the Football League Trophy was contested and the crowbarring-in of B-teams is just yet another nod towards the power gap between the top and bottom divisions. In the end, not everyone cares about the Premier League so leave us be.
English football isn’t broken, so stop trying to fix it.