EFL Trophy: Coming Apart Before It Begins?
If the original plans hadn’t been such an insult, the events of the last few days would have been quite funny. The Football League – or, as it has chosen to rebrand itself from this summer, the “English Football League” – opted to ignore a rumble of discontentment from the supporters of its member clubs and press ahead with its decision to invite Premier League academy teams into the Football League (or “EFL”) Trophy, but with just a few weeks to go before the start of the new season, it is becoming increasingly apparent that far from all of them even want anything much to do with it.
Earlier this week, plans for the new tournament were made public for the first time. Its latest incarnation will see sixty-four teams split into sixteen groups of four on a regional basis with each group containing an invited club. They will play each other once, with the invited club playing one game at home. Teams will earn three points for a win and a point for a draw, but if the scores in any matches are level after ninety minutes an extra point will go to the winner of a penalty shootout. The top two from each group will then proceed to a regional knockout containing thirty-two teams, with the rounds of sixteen, eight and four being single ties that will be settled by penalties after ninety minutes.
The ongoing soap opera that the Premier League seems to be becoming and the European Championships have pushed the story a little way down the news agenda over the course of the last few weeks, but over the last couple of days it has started to feel increasingly as though the revised Football League Trophy isn’t even going end up being what the Football League had hoped it would be. Although promoted by the Premier League as a way to “help young, talented players progress physically and mentally on top of the technical aspect of their game”, it is starting to feel as though even Premier League clubs themselves might not be terribly interested in it.
At the time of writing, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur have all declined invitations to take part in it, whilst it is understood that Liverpool and Manchester United are less than happy with the scheduling of the competition. For the most part, the reasons that have been gleaned for this could hardly be described as acting in the wider interests of the integrity of football. Liverpool have been reported as being unhappy with the requirement to make Anfield available for a match, for example, whilst Spurs have concerns regarding the competition to proximity international weekends, but the fact that this is competition is about to be as low down the priority of most Premier League clubs as it’s possible to be should be sending a message loud and clear to the Football League.
Well, that’s what we’d hope, although quite why this would be, when we consider the extent to which they didn’t even bother canvassing the opinions of supporters, may be something of a mystery, and the League’s bullishness on the subject this week probably shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. “The new format is intended to rejuvenate this competition and also assist the development of the very best young players in English football”, its chief executive Sean Harvey stated earlier this week, adding that, “This will help us deliver more and better homegrown players, which will deliver benefits to the national team and domestic league football at all levels.”
Ah, that old canard. Admittedly, it is a little surprising to hear the well-rehearsed lines about this all benefiting the national game yet again. It’s a trick that the Premier League and the FA pulled a quarter of a century ago and they got away with it, but in 2016 this idea – which is appealing in principle – doesn’t even seem worth engaging with at any serious level. How, exactly, will playing a handful of matches in three-quarter empty stadia against lower league opposition “benefit the national team”? No-one seems to have come up with a terribly convincing reason as to why this this might be beyond some mutterings about “competitive football”, and it would be understandable if Premier League managers were reluctant to put their highly-valued young players up against cloggers from the lower divisions who might be able to mistime a tackle sufficiently to do serious damage to one of them.
The lack of benefits to the national team should be perfectly obvious. The national team in England obviously needs a complete restructuring, but if the Football Association ever wishes to get the team anywhere near the level of the game that, say, France or Germany are at right now, they would do better to train up thousands of UEFA Category A Coaches, teach children into good football habits from as young an age as possible, and try to turn down the shrill nature of football discourse in this country before turning their attention to playing a handful of matches in the Football League Trophy. England’s footballing problems are structural, infrastructural and cultural, require complex answers to complex questions and may take decades to resolve, and the Football League could have been at the forefront of this new beginning.
But no. Instead, it has decided that the best that it can manage is to slap a sparkly bow tie onto one of its competitions and hope for the best, and this apparent fundamental inability to understand the game has left it looking like Sideshow Bob in garden full of rakes, this summer. Perhaps the sense of self-importance of the entire organisation has been inflated by those occasional lists which rank it as one of the most-watched in Europe, but the League should beware its own hubris. The Premier League remains the juggernaut in English football, and support for Football League clubs is certainly more variable than that for Premier League clubs. At present, there is definitely a lot of anger in the air on this subject and a lot of supporters will be boycotting this iteration of the competition because it is regarded as a back door towards allowing Premier League clubs to enter B teams in the Football League.
The number of people jumping off the fence to boycott it seems unlikely to drop over the coming weeks and this, coupled with the traditional apathy that accompanies the early stages of the competition, means that it would be extremely surprising were attendances for early matches anything but extremely low, and this in itself makes a mockery of the gate-sharing clauses that had been inserted into its new format. Furthermore, the Football League has betrayed the confidence of the supporters of its clubs, devaluing its own tournament, introducing the changes with practically no support from supporters – and certainly with little to no consultation with them – and… for what? An extra million pounds in prize money? The belief that this will somehow satiate any interest that Premier League clubs may have in getting B teams into the Football League? One can only wonder what the true motives were behind all this strife and upheaval.
It is, perhaps, time for the Football League to sit back and take stock of what, exactly, its raison d’etre is. The Premier League is there for the television money, the global audience and the lavish commercial deals. We all know that. We might not like it. We might not respect it. But at least the Premier League doesn’t waste too much of its time prosletysing to cynics that it is “real football for real people”. The Football League has had an opportunity to properly connect with fans and to create an alternative football culture for those who have been priced out or otherwise alienated by the Premier League. It might have positioned itself explicitly as an organisation that cares more for the supporters of its member clubs than any other. It has chosen this path instead, though. Perhaps it will make a little more money out of it. Perhaps it won’t. A good number of us will simply be looking the other way, wondering why we invest so much into an organisation that doesn’t even seem to care very much about us in the first place.
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