Ryan Lowe doesn’t mix his words. The straight-talking Scouser has impressed many Argyle fans since his arrival at Home Park, not least in part due to his honesty and transparency when dealing with the press. It’s a markedly different approach to that of Derek Adams, who was by and large reserved and cautious in revealing his innermost thoughts and opinions.
Such is Lowe’s way with words, that the confident and charismatic manager has already made a number of remarks that other managers may have looked to avoid. He’s boldly enthused about Danny Mayor, claiming he’s a better player than Graham Carey, whilst suggesting that traditional target man Ryan Taylor will score at least 20 goals this coming campaign. Whilst evidence may hint to the contrary, such is Lowe’s personality, you’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and wait and see. There’s a touch of Ian Holloway about him. He’s believable because you think he believes every word he speaks.
Nonetheless, there’s a problem. Argyle fans can suspend belief for a season or two. You’ll struggle to find a supporter that doesn’t want Danny Mayor to be the next Graham Carey and more. You’ll find even less that don’t want to see the ever-popular Ryan Taylor add goal scoring to his list of qualities as a hold-up man. As said, such is Lowe’s manner many believe him and have little reason not to, given the weight of conviction in his words.
However, despite all of that, some may find the EFL Trophy just one pill too bitter to swallow. During the build-up to this season, when asked about the controversial cup competition that kicks off this week, Lowe had the following to say;
“It’s massively important to me. I want to treat it as an FA Cup or a Carabao Cup.”
And herein lies the problem.
For many Football League fans, and not just those that follow Argyle, the EFL Trophy is not the FA Cup, it’s not the Carabao Cup and it’s not a close third either. Such is the disdain for the Football League and the inclusion of Premier League and Championship Under 21 squads, that the competition has been boycotted by the majority of supporters since its inception. The competition is seen as a gateway for the addition of ‘B Teams’ into the Football League, which is something that most supporters vehemently oppose.
Nonetheless, the Argyle boss wants to win the competition, leaving him somewhat at odds with the fanbase. This is a tricky situation for Argyle fans. Lowe is popular and in a short space of time has already built a solid rapport with the fan base. On the flip side, the competition could have an impact on the long term direction of the Football League and therefore Argyle’s standing in it. What do Argyle fans do? Back the manager or back the boycott?
Make no mistake about it, that whilst the default position to the EFL Trophy has by and large been to avoid it, there is merit in supporting Argyle throughout the campaign this time around. For starters, it’s a rare opportunity to win a trophy, and a cup competition at that, something Argyle have never achieved throughout their entire existence. With no Argyle team having ever made it to a cup final, Ryan Lowe has an opportunity to make history in his debut season at Home Park and who can blame him for trying? A full-strength Argyle side will be fancied to go far in the competition, especially given a number of clubs use it as a means of testing fringe players and younger squad members.
There’s also the momentum that a decent cup run can bring with it. In the words of the manager, “sometimes you are better playing games than training. If you are winning, you bounce into the next one.” With Argyle aiming for instant promotion back to League One, winning habits could make all the difference come May. In contrast, a distracted cup effort, marked by small and less than enthusiastic crowds, could have the reverse effect.
Then there’s the financial side of the game to consider. Whilst a cynic may point out that the commercialisation of football has at least in part contributed to the revised-format of this competition, it’s an aspect one cannot just ignore. The equation is simple. The more games that Argyle win and therefore play throughout the EFL Trophy, the more money they will earn. It’s not difficult to understand why this is important. Even with Simon Hallett’s slightly more relaxed approach to spending than that of predecessor James Brent, the club’s ethos is still very much to live within its means. A successful cup run might just stretch those means come January or even next summer. Argyle are not bankrolled by some mega-billionaire and so in a business-sense at least it may not be the best decision to neglect the competition, for the sake of being popular.
In contrast to all of this, is the bigger picture. The one that looks at far more than just Ryan Lowe and Argyle, and takes into consideration the wider game as a whole. There’s no denying the scale at which the game in this country has been commercialised in recent years.
Since Argyle were last in the Championship, we’ve witnessed second-tier English clubs spend in excess of £10m on a single player. As was well documented by the previous owner, Championship clubs are losing money at an alarming rate too. In just the last five years alone Championship clubs have seen their losses increase by 106%. Perhaps most alarming of all is that, over the last five years, only in 2017 did Championship wages not exceed income. On that occasion, it was a mere 99.8%.
This is not an issue confined to the Premier League, but whilst it may not seem like it, is one of the contributory factors as to why we have the EFL Trophy in its current-day format. In the words of Shaun Harvey, who was EFL chief executive when the competition was revamped, ”the new format is intended to rejuvenate this competition and also assist the development of the very best young players in English football. 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.”
It’s fair to say that since the introduction of academy teams, the competition has been anything but rejuvenated. Such has been the reaction to the changes, that one does wonder how much research was conducted into the introduction of new teams. The reaction to the introduction of new teams hasn’t been disgruntlement but anger with attendances falling dramatically. The EFL has also struggled to find sponsorship for the competition, with car leasing company Leasing.com only being announced on the eve of the competition.
It also seems farfetched to suggest that the competition will assist with the development of players. A popular belief in English football is that young English footballers do not get enough opportunities to play regular, competitive games and that, in turn, is having a detrimental effect on their development and the success of the national team. Let’s not forget though, that there are 72 clubs in the English Football League, all of which are professional.
The National League now has a sizeable number of professional members too, meaning there are more opportunities for English players to play domestic, professional football than there is anywhere else in the world. The reality is that there are fewer opportunities for young English footballers if they play for Premier League clubs, many of which hoard large numbers of young players in the hope that one or two might be the next Wayne Rooney.
By implementing squad quotas, ensuring a number of young players at academies had to find professional contracts elsewhere in the Football League, football authorities could have a far greater impact on the development of young players in this country.
Those players not destined to break onto the professional scene at the highest level immediately would instead have the opportunity to play domestic football all season long, in the games that many take far more seriously than the three played in the EFL Trophy group stages. If this competition was really about player development, you can’t help but feel they’d have found a better solution.
There’s a real sense that the EFL have created this competition under false pretenses. Whilst there can be no denying that, in its previous format, it could have done with a few improvements, the inclusion of Premier League clubs seems akin to breaking a nut with a sledgehammer. Inviting National League teams back into the competition would have in all likelihood improved things.
Football League fans would have enjoyed visiting new grounds, whilst the smallest teams in the pyramid would have had an opportunity to make additional funds, and test their players against better opposition. Listening to fans would have gone a long way to improving the EFL Trophy, but instead the EFL have distanced themselves further from the paying customer, a divide that is ever-growing, when in reality it should be a close-knit relationship.
Nonetheless, and despite the passionate objections to the EFL Trophy and the EFL as a whole, it looks like for the mid-term at least this competition will continue as it is. The EFL are refusing to blink first and, with the competition now in its third year, it will be interesting to see if crowds start to come back.
Many exciting things are happening at Home Park, both on and off the pitch, with new manager Ryan Lowe being just one of them. Argyle fans could be tempted back with the prospect of winning a trophy. We don’t get the opportunity to visit Wembley often, and with Lowe gearing up for success in both the league and the EFL Trophy, an unprecedented ‘double’ could be on the cards. For many, the inclusion of academy teams may be a price to pay for a chance at history.