When the changes to the old Johnstone's Paint Trophy were floated, many fans were up in arms. While they would have been justified to lose their shit over its mere rebranding as the Checkatrade Trophy – probably the worst name for a tournament since, well, the Capital One Cup – the real sticking point was the introduction of Premier League B teams to the competition. This has been a controversial topic ever since, in May 2014, then FA chairman Greg Dyke suggested that youth sides should be introduced to the English league pyramid and compete in a newly created 'League 3'. With the professed aim of improving the long-term prospects of the England national team, an FA commission headed by Dyke recommended the formation of a new division incorporating the top half of the Conference and 10 Premier League B teams, a plan which would supposedly provide young English players with more opportunities and competitive games.
There were, naturally, several major pitfalls with this plan, not least the fierce opposition it inevitably inspired among lower-league supporters. While the continental model of competitive B teams might work in the context of a different football culture, England is unique in the sense that there are clubs in the fifth, sixth and even seventh tiers who draw thousands of fans. While the Spanish league pyramid, for instance, incorporates youth sides like Real Madrid Castilla and Barcelona B into its third tier, available data for the Segunda División B suggests that the average home attendance for the top ten most popular teams in Grupo 1, for instance, is 2,337 this season. For comparison, average attendance for the top ten most watched teams in the English third tier is 11,698, while in the fourth tier it stands at 6,860. This season, according to the latest official figures, the average attendance for the top ten most popular teams in the fifth tier stands at a healthy 2,763, with the best attended matches drawing crowds of anything up to 7,790 fans.
It should be noted that many of the sides in the four groups of the Segunda División B have average home attendances in the mid to low hundreds, this according to statistics taken from worldfootball.net. Some of the most watched sides at this level are, in fact, B teams, which shows how different Spanish football culture is from our own. There was never any guarantee that borrowing from this model would mean more success for the England national team, with the countries that most overachieve at international level often those who invest most in grassroots football, as opposed to some arbitrary lower-league shake up. Meanwhile, it is more than understandable that a Wrexham, Tranmere or Lincoln City fan might not feel too enthused by the prospect of seeing his or her team face a Manchester City youth side twice a season, nor feel too pleased by the idea of their current division becoming little more than another vehicle for the Premier League.
In a sense, the League 3 plans were emblematic of the malaise at the heart of English football. They posed a fundamental threat to the culture of the lower leagues, were hugely unpopular with the majority of fans, and still they were pushed out in half-baked fashion by a supercilious footballing establishment who, when it comes to dedicated, matchgoing supporters, often seem like they couldn't care less. The uproar amongst fans at the time was deafening, with journalists, managers and club officials adding to the dissenting voices. It was also around this time that the 'Against League 3' campaign got started, in an effort to create a common platform from which supporters might oppose the proposed changes.
The founders of Against League 3, James Cave and Lewis Horwell, needed little extra motivation to get the campaign going. Fans of Southport and Grimsby Town respectively, their clubs could have been actively affected by the introduction of B teams directly below the Football League. Speaking about how the campaign first came together, James tells me: "We'd both seen our sides play Premier League reserve teams in county cup competitions and pre-season friendlies, and they were always the absolute worst games of the season. We both felt exactly the same at the time – we thought the League 3 plan was threatening to our clubs, so we founded the campaign."
Before long, Against League 3 had garnered a significant following. In 2015, barely a year after the FA's plans had been made public, they were forced to shelve the League 3 idea in the face of widespread opposition from clubs in the Football League and below. Unfortunately, the spectre of Premier League B teams re-emerged with the Checkatrade Trophy overhaul implemented at the start of this season, with the former Johnstone's Paint Trophy a far easier target in terms of radical remodelling. Hardly the most fashionable competition in the world even in its heyday, in introducing B teams the footballing authorities could claim they were reviving a somewhat neglected tournament as opposed to interfering with the essentials of the lower-league game. Disappointingly, having initially suggested the idea as a compromise to the FA's League 3 pipe dream, it was the Football League which approved the introduction of B teams to the revamped EFL Cup – soon to be sponsored by the monstrously named Checkatrade – at their Annual General Meeting in the summer of 2016.
Of course, the Johnstone's Paint Trophy held some weight as a competition, not only providing clubs in League One and League Two with a realistic chance of silverware but also giving lower-league fans the chance of a day out at Wembley. While attendances were hardly record breaking, they were nonetheless far better than they are now, with the 2015/16 edition of the tournament drawing an average crowd of 4,363. Almost 60,000 fans turned up for the final between Barnsley and Oxford United last April, with the former triumphing in a 3-2 thriller which drew plaudits well beyond those two fanbases. This was not a tournament which was entirely dead on its feet, unlike the one which has followed it.
The first season of the Checkatrade Trophy has, at times, been little short of embarrassing. The average attendance has fallen to 1,405, with games involving Premier League B teams generally drawing the lowest crowds of all. The shambolic nature of the early rounds was well documented, with managers naming themselves amongst the substitutes and circumventing rotation rules by bringing senior players off after a couple of minutes. What's more, the B teams involved in the competition were often replete with overseas players, making the stated aim of blooding young English talent seem even more flawed than it already was.
James over at Against League 3 has no qualms in admitting his part in the failure of the new competition format. Spreading the message via social media, sympathetic fans and word of mouth, he helped to organise a boycott of the tournament which contributed to the often ridiculously low crowds. While there is considerable anger amongst fans over the changes to the Johnstone's Paint Trophy itself, there is also a lingering fear that it is being used as a dry run for further B team inclusion, though more tacitly this time. The Against League 3 campaign is vigilant in this sense, and was never going to take the presence of B teams in a lower-league competition lying down.
"When it was first announced that the competition was going ahead in the format that it has this season, the main feedback we got back from our campaign support was that we should organise a boycott," James tells me. "In the early rounds, the boycott went very, very well, with a competition record low attendance broken as well as record low attendances at a couple of clubs. The competition has gone as well as expected, really – it's not offered as much game time for English youngsters as the EFL hoped and said it would, so I don't think the current format is ever going to be the answer to the issues which the England national team are having. Unsurprisingly, I'm happy to come out and say that I think the new format has been pretty disastrous, not least because it's driven a wedge between fans and the Football League. Trust and confidence in the EFL is certainly the lowest that I can remember it in my time as a football fan."
Back in December, the head of the EFL admitted that the current format could be dispensed with, and that the Checkatrade Trophy could potentially be done away with altogether. In that sense, it seems that the Football League hierarchy are at least conscious of the competition's newfound unpopularity, and recognise that they have made serious errors along the way. "I think they are aware of the negative feedback they would get if this format were to continue," James says. "Still, considering that I'm running a campaign against the competition in its current form, I'm always going to say things like that. I appreciate that I can't give the most objective opinion," he laughs, "but there is plenty of evidence there to suggest that this format hasn't been successful at all."
Nonetheless, somewhat inevitably, it has been harder for the Against League 3 campaign to maintain its boycott as the competition has gone on. With only one academy side left in the tournament by the quarter-final stage and none at all in the semis, the latter rounds of the Checkatrade Trophy have come to resemble something like normality, which has perhaps limited the momentum of the campaign somewhat. "Running the boycott has been an incredibly time-consuming, incredibly stressful process," James says, when asked about the logistical difficulties of such an endeavour. "I'm just a football fan, and have no prior experience of running or organising a boycott in this way. It's been totally new territory for me, it has been very different, very interesting and eye opening in that sense. There have of course been people along the way who haven't really supported what we've been trying to do, or have thought we could go about it a different way.
"In the early rounds, we got a lot of positive feedback about the boycott and very little negative feedback. As we've approached Wembley and the final, that's probably changed somewhat." While lower-league fans might be angry with how the tournament has been reorganised, that famous day out at Wembley is still seen as a tantalising reward at the end of a long and difficult season. "We wanted to continue the boycott as long as we could, including the Wembley final," James adds. "Obviously, that's not quite worked, which I think says more about the significance of Wembley to supporters than anything else."
When it comes to the final itself, the crowd looks set to be a reasonable one. While this may be used by the powers that be to suggest that the tournament has worked after all, that narrative is unlikely to wash with the majority of outside observers and fans. "When you look at the situations of the cities involved, Oxford and Coventry, the latter are having their own problems with their owners and, as such, I think their fans just want to see their team win a competition," James says. "They are worried that their club is in such danger that they could go out of business, so I obviously understand they want to support their team. With Oxford fans it's been a much more divisive issue, and when you look at their online forums, social media channels and stuff like that, it seems that a lot of Oxford fans are torn over the boycott. I think Oxford fans generally support what we're trying to do, but their own team is the priority and we totally get that – they don't want anything to damage their chances of winning silverware, and we totally understand that as well."
Ultimately, this is one of the biggest problems with organising boycotts and protests in football, in that fans' loyalties will always lie with their clubs. The Against League 3 campaign had scheduled a demonstration against the current Checkatrade format ahead of the final but, with some fans voicing their concern with this tactic and the Football League serving notice over a legally injudicious tweet, it was decided that it would be better to hold off this time around. Regardless, as long as B teams are allowed to compete in the competition, the Against League 3 campaign will be there to oppose them.
"Hopefully the boycott won't be necessary again next season," James says. "Still, I'm happy with what we've achieved so far and I think we've got our message across. There'll be a vote on reforming the competition at the annual AGM and we've heard from a source at the EFL that – dependent on offers of increased revenue and increased finance – it might actually be quite tight. That said, supporters are never going to be behind this format. If clubs put commercial concerns above the concerns of their own supporters, the feedback they are going to get is likely to be absolutely vitriolic, and that's before we've even done anything in terms of continuing the campaign."
When it comes down to it, the participation of B teams in any lower-league competition highlights bigger issues in English football. "One of the main things we would like to come out of this is supporter consultation, something which we want to see occurring regularly and being valued by the league and clubs," James adds. "We argue constantly and repeatedly that clubs don't listen to their own fans, and then when they get negative feedback from the fans they wonder why. So many supporters have spoken out against B teams, either in the league pyramid or cup competitions. The English league pyramid is like no other in the world, and there's a unique set of circumstances in England which we would argue precludes the inclusion of B teams, even in this tournament. That's why we don't want this format to continue and, while others do, someone is going to have to come out on top."