• ITEN Staff

EFL Trophy: The Ongoing Failure

Last night Doncaster Rovers earned two points from a game for the first time since 1981. The reason was not down to the league reverting to the pre-Jimmy Hill winning points tally, but in stead down to one of the many baffling, nonsensical changes made to the former Johnstone’s Paint Trophy for this season by the newly re-branded “EFL”.

Many fans have stayed away, including myself, taking a stand against what is being perceived as the “thin end of the wedge” in the pursuit of adding “B Teams” from top flight clubs into Football League and, although that idea has seemingly being quashed now by the powers that be, their continued presence in the Checkatrade Trophy, as this competition is now known, remains on the table despite the backlash.

Fact, not fiction

Shaun Harvey is the man at the centre of the proposed changes to our league set-up, and it is Harvey who has rightly come in for most of the criticism from the fans after demonstrating his complete lack of understanding towards the issues actually facing his organisation. What makes this all the more astounding is that Harvey is a true “football man”. He has worked in the game at all levels for over 20 years, from holding an important position at Bradford City when they were in the Premier League to slumming it in non-league with Farsley Celtic. Yet, his decisions and comments continue to make him appear no more clued in on English professional football than my six-year-old niece (she’s a fan of Peppa Pig, among other things).

Earlier this week Harvey gave an interview to the BBC’s Simon Stone attempting to defend the EFL Trophy changes that have been met with such an outpouring of negativity, and in it the reality of his opinion was borderline laughable. In his very first answer here he tried to big up the fact that 13000 extra fans had attended matches in the opening round of fixtures compared to last year, despite clearly being aware of the fact that there were double the amount of games this time around owing to the expanded number of teams competing. By that token, and considering the 16 new teams are all from well-supported, high ranking clubs, an increase in attendances of only around 44% is nothing to boast about. Harvey also tried to blame the perceived “staleness” of the competition on the format being unchanged in a number of years, yet this is not a problem for the F.A. Cup, which has been contested under the same format for most of its modern history with only minor changes to replays and the venue of the final rounds.

The full interview is available at the link above if you wish to pick through the rest of Harvey’s nonsense, but the facts remain that he is proving with every interview that he is on a different page altogether to the majority when it comes to solving the issues facing our game. Claiming the importance of EFL clubs providing elite youth prospects is aided by this competition directly contradicts the introduction of top flight U23 teams, along with the nature of the rules surrounding EPPP, whilst comparing the prospect of two U23 sides playing at Wembley for the Checkatrade Trophy to two EFL sides reaching the FA Cup Final is a flat-out insult to every club Harvey is allegedly in charge of representing. His answers to straight-forward questions pointing out the obvious flaws in this format unfolding before our eyes are akin to those of US Presidential Candidate Donald Trump when faced with the facts on climate change.

Even the positives weigh themselves down

The headline that Harvey and co. want to take away from the new EFL Trophy is of course the valuable experience it gives to youth team prospects, holding up the idea as the way forward for developing young talent and bridging the gap between academy football and the professional ranks. We can see at the Rovers that the matches played in this tournament are affording good opportunities for the likes of Alfie Beestin, Liam Mandeville and Will Longbottom to impress, but even here there is a fatal flaw in the EFL’s plan.

The rules do not apply universally for all 64 teams competing. Whilst the invited U23 teams are encouraged to play their youth prospects (albeit only a minimum of 6 in a starting 11 need to fit this criteria), the senior sides from League’s One and Two are actively penalised for doing the same thing. Luton Town have risked a fine in both games so far, changing more than the allotted number of players in their squad in order to rest first choice players and blood youth graduates instead. Manager Nathan Jones today stated he would pay any fine himself pointing out the truth that being fined for playing youth in a tournament designed to help youth development would be outrageous. Yet this is the reality for us, an uneven playing field.

Last night our youngsters earned a creditable draw against the young prospects from Championship side Derby County, a result made all the more impressive by the fact the starting attacking quartet for the visitors were all first team players, three of whom were aged 25 or 26, including a Scotsman and an Austrian. The only one of these players fitting the age criteria was opening goalscorer James Wilson, a 20-year-old on loan from Manchester United, a team who refused to even participate in the tournament. This says it all, and you will find numerous examples across the group stages, from 30-year-old Scottish international Charlie Adam netting in a game for Stoke, to 28-year-old Frenchman Tony Andreu scoring a hat trick for Norwich that actually earned him a move to the illustrious Scottish Championship days later.

Tackle the real issues, please

Instead of wrecking the long-standing, traditional and popular formats that help make the game at this level what it is (that being the most successful pyramid league system in world football, if not all of sport), perhaps Harvey and his chums from the Premier League and the F.A. should direct their attention at the real problem areas adversely affecting the national game. How about the growing corruption scandal starting at the very top, that has cost the England manager his job? Perhaps they should address the ever increasing financial gap between the top flight and the rest, a problem that has led to clubs with the history and standing of Darlington and Hereford United going completely out of business for what amounts to a similar amount of money that a top Premier League footballer makes on his own in less than a month. Sorting these very real issues would do a lot more for our game than the meddlesome “Whole Game Solution”, the moniker reminiscent of 1940’s Germany seeking to completely ruin the English league structure.

Rather than arbitrarily forcing teams to field their U23 players in front of 600 apathetic fans at reduced prices, they should do something to address the flagrant misuse of the youth team system that clubs such as Chelsea enact every year, buying up talented players from across the globe only to loan them out to eight clubs before subsequently releasing them without making so much as a dozen first team appearances. Manchester United sold or released eight players over the summer that were either youth team graduates or young prospects signed from EFL clubs in their teenage years after the arrival of Jose Mourinho in the summer, discarded to make room for big money additions like Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, two men as concerned with their own personal branding as they are with their performances on the pitch.

Pep Guardiola became another example of the Premier League’s obsession with attracting “superstar” names from abroad instead of aiding the progression of homegrown playing and coaching talent when he joined Manchester City earlier this year, and one of his first acts as boss was to jettison England’s first choice goalkeeper Joe Hart, denigrating him to the point of putting him in a substitute rotation with 35-year-old Argentine journeyman Willy Caballero before shipping him off altogether to play for a mid-table Serie A side. That things like this are allowed to happen at all is down to the long-term mismanagement for selfish reasons of the governing bodies, and it is more concerning now than ever that the Premier League, the F.A. and the EFL appear to be singing from the same incorrect hymn sheet.