EDITORAL

Time to Kill the Checkatrade Trophy

Sam Down, Analysis, Editoral

29 November 2017

Last night, a football match took place between Yeovil Town and Plymouth Argyle at Huish Park which Yeovil won by two goals to one. Argyle subsequently were eliminated from the Checkatrade Trophy.

As you may have noticed, we did not give the match coverage of any nature. Our regular contributors had the following to say about the game and the competition:

“To paraphrase John F Kennedy, ask not what your football club can do for you but what you can do for your football club. Boycotting this competition will ensure that lower-league football doesn’t become irrelevant.

“I didn’t attend because I decided to spend my evening coaching with a group of Under 11’s, and actually contributing to what will be the future of English football rather than actively trying to destroy its lower leagues.”

“As usual, the Premier League is trying to create a scapegoat for their own inadequacies. The Football League is already full of young, talented footballers, building their career step by step; the only difference in the PL is that they are too cowardly to offer their academy raised players significant game time. The culture of finance and greed has created this monster; PL clubs treat every game as pivotal so they can cling to the top division and suckle on the teat of television revenues for as long as possible – fielding young, up and coming footballers is too much of a risk for their finances. B-teams at any level won’t solve problem, only a PL youth quota can. This is a problem of their creation and we should not be the ones who are forced to suffer because of it.

“Whilst the way in which we lost to Yeovil, a side struggling in the division below us was concerning and disappointing, it will give Argyle one less distraction going forward in the coming months. The Checkatrade competition offers none of the romance of the FA Cup, that could see Derek Adams’ team face a Premier League side should they beat Bradford this weekend, but rather is a showcase of the gluttony of English football. This proves the competition serves as a nothing more than hindrance to League One and Two clubs as Premier League and Championship clubs give game time to the numerous players they have stockpiled and not loaned out.

“The Checkatrade Trophy is without a doubt the most pointless cup competition in the busy Football League calendar. The competition is on its last legs, particularly after the inclusion of B teams, crying out to be scrapped altogether.”

The Whole Game Solution

In order to understand the high level of antipathy to the rebranded Football League Trophy, it is important to understand where exactly the idea came from. In 2014, the EFL (because plain old ‘Football League’ just wasn’t jazzy enough) first announced plans for a situation in which 8 B-Teams from Premier League clubs would be invited into the Football League, increasing the total number of teams in the league from 92 to 100. In 2016, these plans were fleshed out with the view of being launched in 2018: they were referred to as the ‘Whole Game Solution’.

Some aspects, such as reducing fixture congestion with 20 teams leagues, were not unwelcome – though for smaller clubs they threatened their entire finance structure. However, the very idea of introducing B-Teams into the Football League was met with anger and dismay from football fans across the country. Whilst English exceptionalism has done far more harm than good in the main where football is concerned, it is unarguably true that English lower league culture is not quite like that of any other nation.

That’s no slight on Spanish or German football. As good as their top leagues are, they are countries that are physically much larger than England so it takes significantly longer to travel from one end to the other. This naturally reflects on their crowds, which – whilst holding up at the very highest level – do not come close to reflecting the English crowds at the lower levels. In 2016/17, the average attendance in the Spanish Segunda League (second tier) was 7, 544. In the English Championship, that number is 20,119. Even in our third tier, the number was 7, 933.

There’s nothing quite like a football awayday – the almost mystical feeling of going into enemy territory and the potential to returning victorious with three points. The sense of bantering with home supporters across the stands just hours after chatting amicably with them in the home club’s supporters bar cannot be paralleled- it’s what the lower league game is all about. To put a long story short, knowing that the opposition is a real team, made up of real fans on the emotional rollercoaster, who are roaring for their success every bit as much as you are, is pivotal to the magic of the occasion.

This very particular feeling simply cannot be replicated with the introduction of B-Teams into the Football League. Ultimately, there would be nothing at stake. As soon as you introduce reserves into a competitive league, the quintessential magic of a lower league game goes down the toilet. The basic premise of both teams fighting for their lives no longer exists.

As soon as you introduce reserves into a competitive league, the quintessential magic of an English lower league game goes down the toilet. The basic premise of both teams fighting for their lives no longer exists.

This is not to mention the damage it could do the clubs by demoting them out of their division to make room for yet more B-Teams. Frankly, if you give them an inch, would you be shocked if they took a mile? Not only would it kill off the unique features that an English lower league game currently brings, it could be even more horrific and kill off certain clubs entirely- at best, sending them spiralling into non-league.

Testing the Water

B-Teams in the Checkatrade trophy (starting from the 2016/17 season), were considered to be a testing of the waters – particularly because the EFL had not abandoned the hated ‘Whole Game Solution’ at the time of their introduction. The Against  League Three campaign (first founded in 2014) recommended a full boycott of the competition in order to make it abundantly clear that B-Teams in sovereign clubs’ competitions would neither be accepted nor normalised.

EFL Chief Executive Shaun Harvey’s claim that ‘the majority of Fans and clubs are in harmony’ regarding the trophy was proved to completely laughable by the record low attendances. Whilst the final at Wembley unsurprisingly drew a large crowd, average attendances up to and including the semi-finals fell to 1,404 (from 3,221 in 2015-16). Embarrassingly low three-figure crowds became the norm across the board as two u23 Premier League sides recorded higher average attendances across the season; the lowest was a crowd of just 284 that watched West Brom’s home game against Gillingham.

Both Manchester United’s and Everton’s U23 sides recorded higher average attendances last season than the entire Checkatrade Trophy

Whilst the EFL did take the hint (putting the loathed Whole Game Solution on the back-burner), they disappointingly did not completely see the light and remove B-Teams from the competition. The removal of plans to put B-Teams into the league is undoubtedly a good thing, but the continued normalising of those B-Teams could be used as justification for such in the medium and long-term if fans treat the competition as just another game.

The B-Team plans are down but they aren’t out. Someone, at some point in the future, will raise the idea once again of introducing them into the Football League. If you want to go to an away game where the opposition are not another club like yours, but the reserve side of Stoke City or Brighton and Hove Albion, go ahead and attend Checkatrade Trophy games. If not, we urge you to stay away for the longer term good of your club.

Of course, we understand fans want to watch the team they love. Temptation is natural – those fans who do go to watch games do not have their hearts in the wrong place. Our message to them is to reconsider – will the moments they now enjoy be so legitimate in 30 years time if, rather than a sovereign league, the division they play is is full of Premier League vassals? I know Peter Hartley heading home a 90th minute winner against Brighton’s U23s wouldn’t feel nearly the same as it did against Portsmouth.

We urge all fans to continue the boycott and maintain the pressure. So long as the football league see fans will not attend matches or competitions that involve B-Teams, they will worry for their wallets and not attempt to extend them. Let’s make the remaining crowds even lower than last season, so that hopefully, next summer at the EFL’s annual conference, clubs can go one step further and actually vote to abolish the completion entirely.

The addition of B-Teams is an affront to England’s lower leagues. Fans need to fight to keep it the thriving institution it was once.

In fact, the saddest bit about Argyle’s elimination from the competition last night was that it allowed Chelsea’s academy side to progress through: adding that fraction more legitimacy to the cuckoos in the nest of English football.

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