OPINION: Why there are concerns over English Football League Trophy shake-up

Mansfield Town Web Tile
Mansfield Town Web Tile

It’s the thin end of the wedge and we all know where this could end... with the Premier League muscling in more and more on the Football League, eventually being allowed to field B teams in leagues and two.

I am talking, of course, about the changes to the English Football League Trophy (EFL) - known last season as the Johnstone Paints Trophy, but which will forever be known by Mansfield Town fans of a certain era as the Freight Rover Trophy.

The competition for clubs in the lower two divisions of the Football League may be derided by the majority of supporters in its early stages, with low attendances marking the midweek knockout matches in the autumn.

But it provides a chance for those like the Stags to reach Wembley and win a trophy, as we so famously did against Bristol City back in the 1980s in the early days of the competition. In fact, since it started there have been 24 different winners of the trophy.

Now the clubs from League One and League Two, including Mansfield Town, have voted for 15 Premier League clubs and Newcastle United to add their academies in a revamped format for the competition, which has yet to attract a sponsor for the new season.

I know that some of the so-called top Premier League teams have turned down the last-minute invitation to join this season... but if the competition is deemed a success this year, they will be taking part for sure in 12 months time when they will have had time to plan their schedules.

There will be 16 groups of four teams on a regional basis (with each group containing one academy team), each playing each other once in August, October and November. The league-style groups will include penalty shoot-outs if matches are drawn over 90 minutes and the chance for the winners to claim an extra point - an innovation that I do think might add a little extra interest.

There will then follow a knockout competition with the invited clubs donating some of their share of gate receipts to a fund that will be shared equally by League One and League Two clubs. There is also prizemoney for winning matches.

In fact, the prizemoney has been doubled thanks to the Premier League’s introduction - and there perhaps lies the answer to all the questions.

Undoubtedly, as I have already said, the opening rounds of the competition have previously only attracted the diehards and probably cost teams money rather than make a profit.

Perhaps that is why the majority of the Football League voted in favour of the dramatic switch. It is understandable that owners want more income, but this could be a case of short-term gain being swallowed up by long-term problems if the Premier League is given a greater involvement in the Football League in years to come because of this initial small involvement.

Plus, the introduction of ‘bigger’ clubs and so-called better players will diminish the chances of winning the competition.

On the flip side, as well as the potential for larger attendances and more income, there will be the chance for the likes of the Stags to test their players against the academy elite of this country - something, no doubt, that could be of benefit to Adam Murray. Though I am not sure whether or not he will welcome the minimum three matches in the competition to add to his playing schedule.

I can see the short-term benefits. It is the bigger picture and where this may lead that worries me.

For now, six of the invited clubs’ players must be under 21 and we are told by Football League chief executive Shaun Harvey that the move is intended to rejuvenate the competition and assist the development of the best young players in English football - with the eventual aim of helping the national team.

I understand that these young academy players need competitive game time and worries that Premier League clubs will play some of their better players in the trophy are never likely to happen, even injured players returning to fitness, because the matches are often scheduled for international weeks.

But the point is that this is just a foot in the Football League door for the Premier League, which has long coveted playing B teams or reserve teams in our, yes our, competition - and even creating 100% feeder clubs.

If that happens the integrity of the league would be compromised and years of history thrown out of the window.

Mansfield Town versus Bury on a wet Tuesday night means something... Mansfield Town versus Liverpool academy or B team does not.

Would Liverpool B be allowed promotion? Surely there could not be two Liverpool teams in the same division?

And if the feeder clubs idea took off, would the two Liverpools, for example, be allowed to play against each other in the FA and League cups?

It is a can of worms and this change to the EFL Trophy is only, in my opinion, going to hasten that can of worms being opened, even if we are still talking many years in the future.

If the Premier League is serious about making sure some of their academy players get more relevant game time, they have plenty of options - Stop bringing in so many youngsters from Europe and elsewhere, actually play some of these players in their teams instead of just stockpiling them, create a new meaningful competition from their pots of money (and, yes, why not invite the likes of the Stags to take part instead of hijacking our competition), or make more of their own reserve competitions by using some of their money to give them a higher profile.

There are many, many ways in which Premier League youngsters could be given the chance to shine on the pitch and develop without the need to change the format of the EFL Trophy.

Supporters’ groups, not normally used to getting excited over the trophy until Wembley is on the horizon in spring, are calling for boycotts of matches.

It will be hard to see if that has any initial effect because of the traditional low attendances in the competition’s early stages. And surely the novelty value of playing a Premier League side, even its academy youngsters, will attract some fans - presumably one of the aims of the Football League clubs’ owners?

Already, it looks like it is going to be an interesting season.