Richard Scudamore & The EFL Trophy
With a couple of weeks still to go before the start of the new season, there is a feeling of some uncertainty in the air. At those clubs that have been blighted by the sort of owners that we wouldn’t wish upon our own worst enemies, little to nothing seems have been happily resolved. The Oyston family maintains its iron grip over Blackpool, Aston Villa have new Chinese overlords who have spent the summer ripping the club’s malfunctioning first team squad from limb to limb, Duchatelet remains at Charlton Athletic, as does Mike Ashley at Newcastle United. In addition to this, the row over the decision to introduce Premier League B teams into the newly renamed EFL Trophy – which probably remains the big entirely domestic story of the summer – continues to cause rancour, with the feeling amongst many supporters being that the Football League rode roughshod over their opinions in allowing academy teams to join a competition that had been meant to showcase and offer a day out at Wembley to the clubs of its bottom two divisions.
Perhaps more than anything else, though, the events of this summer have left this country feeling skittish and divided. Hooliganism at Euro 2016 and the ongoing political uncertainty following the European Union referendum result have left everything looking not quite as it did before, and the question of what the effects of moving into a “post-truth” culture might be remain questions that cannot be easily answered. One of the most difficult of all of these fundamental questions is that of the extent to which anybody will ever trust anyone in a position of authority again. After all, if those in power are now happy to openly lie to so many people, so flagrantly, and for such a long time, why should anybody ever trust anyone in a position of authority again?
Perhaps Richard Scudamore is sufficiently insulated from this world for it not to matter. This week, he has gone on record as stating that Premier League B teams will never play in the Football League, but who will believe such a comment in the current febrile atmosphere that had come to descend over this country? The timing of his comments was most curious, coming in the same week that the Football League prepared to publicly announce which sixteen teams will be joining those of League One and League Two in next season’s Football League Trophy. Had he received a call from Shaun Harvey of the Football League, whose name has been kicked around social media with increasing contempt over the course of the summer, asking for public clarification of this? Did Scudamore feel that there was a risk of the Premier League’s brand starting to become compromised by association with an initiative that has received so much negative publicity that even its most enthusiastic proponents must be starting to wonder whether it was wise to press ahead with it?
There is a strong chance that Scudamore was seeking to distance himself from a reorganised tournament that would at present more appropriately hold its final on the decks of the Titanic than at Wembley Stadium. Sixteen Category One academies were invited to take part in the competition, but most of the biggest clubs – Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur (as well as Newcastle United, of the Championship) – have rejected the opportunity to have their brightest young hopes get lumps kicked out of them by lower division cloggers meaning that, whilst the champions Leicester City and the previous year’s champions Chelsea are present and correct, only ten of the invited clubs have ended up being from the Premier League, with Norwich City, Brighton & Hove Albion, Derby County, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers and Reading making up the numbers instead.
This, we rather suspect, is emphatically not the sprinkling of stardust that the Football League had been hoping for, and they may not even have seen the worst of this yet. If Premier League clubs can’t persuade their supporters to turn out for FA Cup matches these days, what hope do they have of persuading them to watch academy teams with a handful of over age fringe players? And that’s before we even move onto the subject of possible boycotts by supporters of lower division teams who feel as though they haven’t been listened to over these changes by high-handed authorities for whom supporter concerns seem pretty low on any list of priorities. Still, at least we may get an answer to an age-old philosophical question – if Brighton and Hove Albion’s academy team plays Stevenage and no-one is there to see it, does it actually take place?
The Football League couldn’t even get the draw right, this morning. Competing teams now know which groups they’re playing in – and the north-south divide looks particularly broken when we consider a group containing Middlesbrough’s academy team, Scunthorpe United, Cambridge United and Shrewsbury Town, for example – but the draw was carried out in private and no-one knows at which venues matches will be played or when they will be played. One of the invited clubs, West Ham United, can’t use the Olympic Stadium for any of their matches so will be playing all of their group matches away from home. The extent to which contortions seem to be being undertaken in order to accommodate Premier League (and now Championship) academy teams in this tournament leave every impression of the Football League Trophy now being a tournament that doesn’t even know what its identity is any more.
The Football League Trophy used to have an identity, as an opportunity for third and fourth tier clubs to win a trip to Wembley when their chances of doing so otherwise were nearly non-existent. This, however, was blown out of the water by the introduction of Wembley play-off finals in 1990, five years after the first Wembley final in what was then known as the Associate Members Cup was played. A move to the rebuilt Wembley revived the fortunes of a competition that had, whether rightly or wrongly, come to be regarded as a bit of a joke in previous years, but attendances for its earlier stages have remained underwhelming. The FA Cup, which itself has felt under siege in recent years, has an obvious place in our landscape, and after fifty-six years we could say the same for the League Cup as well. But a Football League Trophy held when the supporters of two teams from both League One and League Two will end their season at Wembley in a play-off final that is further watered down, not only by Premier League academy teams but also by Championship academy teams starts to feel like something that is difficult, if not impossible, to further justify.
Don’t shed any tears for the Football League over this, however. This is a mess entirely of their own making. No-one asked for them to push forward with any of this, and there has been little public support for an idea that won’t make any practical difference to the national team and will impact upon the further credibility of a tournament that had little enough amongst many to start with. They’ll push on for this season, of course. They have no choice now. Television contracts have been signed and commercial factors always taken precedent over either doing the right thing or, it increasingly seems these days, common sense. Considering the amount of completely unnecessary bad feeling that has been generated by the Football League over the last few months with regard to this matter, however, it is difficult to imagine that the 2016/17 EFL Trophy will be of a great deal of interest to anybody much. At least, we may console ourselves, supporters of lower division Football League clubs will get a little less fixture congestion this season by not paying much attention to it all. And if the Premier League is starting to distance itself from this farce… well, who can blame them?
You can support Twohundredpercent on Patreon by clicking here.