The EFL Trophy has been a resounding success – it has killed off B teams forever
In August I was one of 14 fans who attended a Q&A with Football League chief executive Shaun Harvey and Southend United chief executive Steve Kavanagh. The event at Roots Hall was held to get supporters’ views on the EFL Trophy, which by that point had already been denounced heavily by supporters ever since confirmation in the summer that Premier League B teams would be taking part.
The fact that only 14 people showed up was an indicator of the apathy that might be shown at the turnstiles. Indeed the following week, for Southend’s opening trophy fixture against the illustrious Brighton B (Southend were in the division above Brighton’s first team as recently as 2007), just 1,275 people paid to attend. It should say something that in the context of the trophy overall, this is quite a decent gate.
When it was revealed that B teams would take part in this trophy, fans feared it would be the thin end of the wedge – that it would be the foot in the door the Premier League had been seeking to prise their second strings, unwanted, into the football pyramid.
The few supporters of the format, mainly armchair fans of the biggest clubs who know very little about life below the Premier League, said it worked in Spain and Germany, so why wouldn’t it work here? Spain and Germany may be significantly better at football than England’s national team, but in terms of the strength and quality of their lower leagues, there is no comparison.
England is the only country in world football that has the system and the provincial pride to sustain 100 or so professional clubs. Shoving a load of pampered but inexperienced 17-year-olds into a competition that is the envy of the world would simply denigrate it completely. Of the 16 so-called elite sides that entered the Trophy, only eight are left after the first round and the fears of some pundits that we could see Chelsea B v Everton B in a Wembley final look very silly. Not least because both these sides are already out. The self-proclaimed Academy of Football, west ham, lost 3-0 to Wycombe, bumbling along in the lower reaches of the fourth tier.
The group stages have already made a mockery of the FA’s claim that it would help improve the England team. Stoke fielded £31million of talent against Bury the other night and still only drew 1-1 in front of a Britannia Stadium “crowd” of 698. The Potters’ side contained three young home players alongside the likes of Marc Muniesa, Bojan Krkic, Julien Ngoy, Eddy Lecygne, Thibauld Verlinden, Gianelli Imbula and our old friend Peter Crouch.
But you know all this. Plenty of other media commentators have stuck the boot into the EFL Trophy this season. Shaun Harvey has been designated the pantomime villain, the man who is wheeled in front of the cameras and microphones to defend the indefensible. It won’t be comfortable for Harvey, but while his attempts to make this pilot work have been genuine, he won’t be losing any sleep over the outcome.
Harvey is not the architect of the failed B team experiment. We can thank Greg Dyke and his 2014 England Commission for that. They are the ones who have thrown down this mandate and they are the ones who should take the blame. Dyke said as recently as last year that lower-league clubs would enjoy the financial benefits of playing against elite clubs. Indeed this was perceived wisdom. An article in the Independent stated that “stadiums would certainly be fuller for the arrival of a Manchester United or Chelsea side than they would playing another lower-league side”. Only fans of those lower clubs knew this view was utter horse shit.
The EFL and the EPL were asked to figure out whether B teams in England would work. Harvey knows the power of the Premier League all too well. Addressing us in August, he made the point that if you say no to everything, eventually they will force your hand. By compromising and acquiescing to B teams in the lesser evil of the EFL Trophy, a struggling competition which had lost its sponsor and faced being lost completely, he put the ball in the court of the Premier League clubs.
It could not have worked out any better. Many of those clubs, who had voted to take part when it was just a nice idea floating around in the sky, suddenly realised that, when push came to shove, it was a logistical nightmare. Trying to fit in EFL Trophy games while competing in ‘Premier League 2’ and losing youngsters in international weeks, which is when most of the games were scheduled, was nigh on impossible. One by one, the biggest clubs pulled out. Harvey said at least one elite club pulled out because they were scared of being embarrassed by lower league sides that play at a higher standard than many realise.
In September, it was revealed that as the Football League continues to consider a revamp that it doesn’t need, it’s Whole Game Solution, that the spectre of B teams in the Football League has now been exorcised completely. The option is off the table, and surely there is no way it can possibly happen now. Clubs too are vehemently opposed to the idea – even those who said yes to the Trophy experiment, Steve Kavanagh and Southend included, said they would never support B teams in the Football League. The Premier League clubs had their chance to give it a go, and realised it wasn’t what they wanted after all.Even if there was still some doubt among the cynics, the final nail in the coffin has been the absolute apathy of the supporters towards these B teams. For games involving those clubs that did agree to take part in the Trophy, attendances have been woeful – the Premier League’s ego didn’t allow it to believe that somehow people wouldn’t be queuing round the block to watch their youngsters play but it has been given a rude shock. It turns out lower-league fans actually want to watch their own team, not a random collection of foreign kids going through the motions who just happen to have a famous name on their badge. The gates played at the homes of the ‘elite’ clubs have been even smaller. Just 300 or so at Middlesbrough and 284 at West Brom.
Supporters across the country, constantly kicked in the balls by the Premier League since it was formed, have finally had enough and voted with their feet. It was the final insult – it is offensive to me as a Southend United fan that my team, however crap we have been over the years, should be involved in games against someone’s reserves. Thousands of others up and down the country clearly feel the same. The notion that my team should be providing the opposition for clubs to train up their youngsters (some of whom have been stolen from clubs like mine for a pittance under EPPP and ironically would be playing far more games if they’d stayed put) is unpalatable and suggests that my club is somehow inferior to someone else’s. It seems only the people in charge of our game have difficulty understanding this.
Harvey has achieved what I believe, given the tone of that discussion in August, he and the 48 clubs in England’s third and fourth tiers wanted all along. Conclusive proof that the second strings of the country’s elite clubs would not be watched and not be welcome. For that reason, the EFL Trophy has been a resounding success.
Where the trophy goes from here is uncertain – the current format is unsustainable and the Premier League won’t stump up this sort of prize money in future if its teams are not involved. If the trophy must die so the Football League can live, it will be remembered with much fondness as a martyr by fans of English football.