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​What Does the Restructured EFL Trophy Say About the State of English Football?

With 16 'category 1' academy sides entering the new EFL Trophy, are we a step closer to B-teams playing in the Football League?

by Hayden Vernon
08 August 2016, 2:01pm

PA Images

Last month, as a dejected Roy Hodgson read out his prepared statement in the aftermath of England crashing out of Europe for the second time in a week, you could have been forgiven for thinking the country – and its most popular sport – needed to hit ctrl-alt-del and start again. Plus ça change.

Two summers ago at the World Cup in Brazil, England's players were packing their flipflops into those weird little man-bags only footballers and roadmen wear, ready to catch their flight home, before some teams had even played their second group game.

A couple of months prior to the tournament, the FA released a prophetic report, attempting to explain why the England men's national team was so shit at major tournaments.

The report identified a lack of playing opportunities for young Englishmen, and found that our boys aren't playing abroad as much as their European counterparts. The solution it found to this was to introduce Premier League B-teams into the Football League pyramid.

Cue angry fan reaction and the formation of a campaign group, Against League 3, which has been fighting to protect English football's lower leagues from restructuring and the introduction of B-teams for the past two years.

"There's been a lot of pressure applied to the pyramid from various angles, from the FA to the Premier League," said James Cave, the campaign's spokesman. "But one of the main things we've always been told by quite a vocal campaign support is that a mixture of first-team clubs and under-21s in a first-team competition was simply not palatable."

Although there are still plans to add an extra division and expand the English Football League [EFL] from 72 to 100 teams by 2019, the idea of introducing B-teams into the league pyramid was quietly dropped last year.

However, the prospect of B-teams playing against first-teams will become a reality this season, as changes to the EFL Trophy (formerly the Johnstone's Paint Trophy, and now the Checkatrade Trophy, for sponsorship purposes) have integrated 16 'category 1' academy sides into the format.

Changes to the trophy were voted on this summer by the member clubs of the EFL, as part of a one-year trial to revamp the ailing lower-league competition at the same time as giving young English players more competitive matches.

Cave argues that because the changes were voted on at the league's summer conference as opposed to the annual general meeting, they were not subject to the same level of transparency.

"There was no notice to fans," he said. "The clubs themselves didn't actually receive any notice, they attended the summer conference, as it was called, and were told there would be a vote, so they had no time to consult with their members or supporters."

Football League chief executive Shaun Harvey, who declined the opportunity to be interviewed for this article, is responsible for the changes. In an interview with his own organisation he explained the reasoning behind introducing B-teams.

Chelsea are the biggest side to field a B-team in the EFL Trophy. Ostensibly, the aim is to allow more players like Ruben Loftus-Cheek to break into the starting 11. Gery Penny/EPA

"The competition needed to change to survive and we felt it was time to rejuvenate the competition with the introduction of the category 1 sides," he said. "It is an approach that has wider benefits for English football too, as it will enable the 16 category 1 clubs that are making an enormous financial contribution to youth development, to test their younger players against professional sides."

All good then. The Premier League's top teams can pit their stockpile of the best young players against lower-league teams, and by actually giving them some game time, possibly produce some England players who don't shit themselves at the thought of playing Iceland.

EFL teams will benefit too, with an extra £1m being pumped into the competition's prize money by the Premier League. That's roughly £20,000 for each of the 48 League One and Two sides, not a spot on the top league's latest £5 billion TV deal, but a decent chunk of cash for clubs that are often struggling to make ends meet.

The problem is this: most of the Premier League's best teams refused the EFL's invitation to take part in the competition, because the fixtures clash with international breaks. The Premier League's best young players are likely to be unavailable to play in the trophy, because they're playing for national sides, either at senior or youth level.

Both Manchester clubs, Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal have all refused to take part in the competition, while Chelsea were only convinced after the EFL made an exception and moved their fixtures to suitable dates. If the league was so desperate to have Chelsea's B-team in the competition, it may have been easier to invite Vitesse Arnhem...

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Because of the withdrawals, which happened after the changes to the tournament had been voted on, six Championship academy teams were invited to join the competition. Bring forth the saviours of English football: Blackburn, Brighton, Derby, Norwich, Reading and Wolves. This isn't a dig at any of those clubs, who all have rich histories, but rather at the idea that their academies playing in the EFL Trophy could in any way offer a solution to the travails of English football.

As a cursory glance at Twitter or the message boards of any EFL club will tell you, fan reaction to the changes has ranged from furious to apoplectic. Although there is no voting record, indications are that only around 30 per cent of the 72 EFL clubs voted against the introduction of academy teams. So is this just representative of a wider disconnect between supporters and their clubs?

The protests at Charlton and Blackpool, against Roland Duchatelet and Karl Oyston respectively, are examples that would suggest so. More recently, Chesterfield showed what they think of their supporters when they made up the winner of a £20-a-ticket raffle for a place on the team's Hungary summer tour, because they only sold four tickets. The brain behind the competition has since been sacked by club.

Despite this, there are signs that some clubs are willing to listen to their fans' concerns. For 2008 FA Cup winners Portsmouth, the supporters became paramount after it had fallen foul of dodgy ownership. Two administrations and three relegations later, the club seemed like a cross between a vast money-laundering scheme and Tal Ben Haim's retirement fund, but eventually the fans stepped in and saved it through the help of a supporters trust. This trust now has to take into account fans' views when making decisions about the club.

Portsmouth are fan-owned and, unsurprisingly, considering their options for the EFL Trophy // PA Images

In the case of the EFL Trophy, this meant voting against changes and also standing up to the competition's rule that, while Premier League and Championship clubs play development squads in the competition, League One and Two teams must play their full-strength side at all times. Portsmouth chief executive Mark Catlin claims the club are on the fans' side and has not ruled out fielding youngsters – against Reading B, no less –- facing a £5,000 fine per game.

"As in previous seasons, and at many clubs at all levels, managers in the early rounds tend to use cups, including the EFL [Trophy], to give younger/development players a genuine competitive match experience," he said. "I see this season as being no different."

Portsmouth fans have reciprocated by starting a CrowdFunding page to countenance any potential fines.

Accrington Stanley, Luton Town and fan-owned AFC Wimbledon have all also spoken out against the changes, but have said they will respect the democratic vote and play in the competition.

Last year's finalists, Oxford United, seem to have an ambivalent stance on the EFL Trophy. Despite being against the changes, club chairman Daryl Eales voted in favour of the overhaul, citing its declining popularity as a need for a revamp. However, because of negative fan reaction, he has moved to reassure supporters that the competition is not a precursor to the introduction of B-teams into the league, as many have suggested.

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"This is a one year experiment – period," Eales said in a club statement. "The club will not vote for a continuation of this format and the inclusion of B-teams going forward."

Against League 3 agree that changes were needed to the trophy, because interest in it was flagging and clubs were often making a loss to put on games, but they are clear that the introduction of B-teams is not a solution to this problem.

"What this has essentially done is turn supporters against the competition, which is contrary to [the EFL's] aims of wanting to develop it and improve it and make it more exciting," Cave said.

To combat the changes, Against League 3 has reluctantly advocated a boycott of the EFL Trophy, a decision not taken lightly due to the effect it could have on cash-strapped clubs.

"I don't think voting with your feet is a sustainable method long-term, because you're depriving clubs of revenue – that's one of the things we've really struggled with and agonised over with this boycott," said Cave. "[But] there are other ways of contributing – either buy a kit or something from the club shop, or volunteer, or find another way to give back."

Southampton lifted the trophy in 2010, with Alan Pardew in the dugout and a team that included a young Adam Lallana (second from left) // PA Images

The prospect of the changes to the trophy becoming the "thin end of the wedge", which could lead to the introduction of B-teams into other first-team competitions, has been voiced by supporters. Currently if B-teams are to be introduced into the league, EFL clubs would have to vote 90 per cent in favour, and Against League 3 have said they know that more than the seven clubs necessary would vote against. However, the campaign group argues that a lack of transparency around member votes means that the league could lower the voting threshold for the introduction of B-teams.

"What would be a lot easier, however, would be to change the voting procedure." said Cave. "Currently, it's very, very difficult, but that could be the path we're heading down."

Regardless of whether the changes are a step towards a continental-style league system or not, a lot of fans see the prospect of their club playing competitive games against B-teams as fundamentally undermining years of history and achievement. Put simply, these are not things worth throwing away for the chance England might stop fucking up at tournaments.

"I think our 140-odd years of history should amount to more than a bit-part in a trailer for the Premier League's TV show," said Grimsby Town fan Pete, who has joined the B-team boycott. "No club should be demeaned in this way. Whether or not there's a wedge with a thin end, we're all worth more than this. We don't have to stand for it. And we have the means to stop it – let's use them."

@HaydenVernon

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