Check it out
The Checkatrade Trophy returns
THE Checkatrade Trophy has kicked off again – but can it turn from ugly duckling into a beauty? If there was an award for the competition which attracted the most negative publicity last season, then it won it hands down.
Before it had even kicked off, fans were up in arms that Premier Division academy sides were going to be allowed to enter the tournament. They felt it was devaluing a competition which had always given clubs in the bottom two divisions a chance to have a day in the sun.
Some even feared it was the thin end of the wedge and it was the precursor to Premier League B teams being admitted to the Football League. That wasn’t the case, though many supporters were angry enough to boycott the Trophy anyway and tiny crowds turned up.
In addition, there was confusion over the eligibility rules for the Category One Academy sides (they had to field six players in the starting 11 under the age of 21), while a host of EFL clubs were unhappy at being fined for breaching the selection criteria that applied to them.
In the end, underdogs Coventry City won the Checkatrade Trophy with a 2-1 win against Oxford United in front of a bumper 74,434 at Wembley in early April - after the academy sides had failed to turn over their senior opponents.
Towards the end of last season as the dust settled on the one-season trial, League One and Two clubs were asked to vote on three options:
1. Retaining the current format with amendments.
2. Reverting to a 48-team knock-out competition.
3. Abandoning the Checkatrade Trophy altogether.
So, the clubs had the option to kill the Trophy off – but decided to keep it going. In total, 66.6% of clubs who voted went for option one. It means the format – with some key amendments – will be retained for this season and next.
What was it that ensured the much-maligned Trophy got a vote of confidence?
One of the keys to the clubs supporting the current concept was undoubtedly financial. Prize money last season was almost £2m, but this term it will be £3m.
This is largely because each of the 48 EFL teams will receive a participation fee of £20,000. Prize money through the initial group stage and the subsequent rounds remains the same.
The other big plus for League One and Two clubs is that they will have greater flexibility in who they can pick without fear of being fined.
Last season, they had to start with at least five players who started the league fixture immediately before or after the Trophy game, or the five players who had started the most league and cup matches to that point in the season.
This season, EFL clubs can play any goalkeeper and four qualifying outfield players from ten.
The criteria for qualifying outfield players has been extended to players who: 1. Have started the previous or following first team fixture. 2. Are in the top ten players at the club for starting appearances in league and domestic cup competitions for the season. 3. Have made 40 or more first team appearances in their career. 4. Are on loan from either a Premier League or Category 1 Academy club.
League Two outfit Luton Town were one of the clubs who fell foul of the selection criteria last season, after deciding to play more of their young prospects. They were fined £15,000.
Hatters boss Nathan Jones said: “We are pleased that our feedback has been taken on board, with the relaxation of the selection rules allowing us to play the players we choose to.
“We strongly feel our young players deserve the same opportunity as those from Category One Academies.”
Other changes for the coming season include groups being formed to minimise overall travel time for EFL clubs and fans, invited under-21 teams playing all their group games away from home, regionalisation until the quarter-final stage and also flexibility of fixture dates to allow teams to schedule games outside of international weeks.
One of the other grumbles last year was that the big boys – Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham – didn’t enter their academy sides.
This time around, Manchester City and Tottenham have both come on board. City are in Northern Group F and will line up against Brad-
ford City, Chesterfield and Rotherham United.
Spurs are in Southern Group F and will face AFC Wimbledon, Barnet and Luton Town.
One of the ideas behind inviting the academy sides into the competition is to help some of the country’s best young players get valuable match experience against senior opposition.
There’s a feeling that academy football is not the real thing, that it’s plastic football and young players need to be taken out of their bubble.
Tottenham’s head of player development, John McDermott, said:“We took the decision to enter the compe- tition as it is beneficial for the development squad’s scheduling this year. “We know the Checkatrade Trophy will provide a massive challenge for us and we look forward to testing ourselves.” EFL club bosses have also given their backing to the competition. Last season’s Wembley winner, Coventry City manager Mark Robins, said: "The Checkatrade Trophy has been an invaluable experience for those players at an under 21 level to participate in senior football, it will certainly aid their development moving forward. "We won the competition with what was primarily a young team, and if you can get to Wembley and experience a fixture in front of that many fans at the national stadium, it can only be a positive."
Doncaster manager Darren Ferguson, who led his side to promotion from League Two last term, said:“The Checkatrade Trophy was a roaring success for Doncaster Rovers as far as I am concerned, it gave me the chance to play and look at the younger players in the squad and see how they coped with better opposition.
“The players enjoyed the group stages of the tournament and we were disappointed to go out of it on penalties in the second round (Donny lost 8-7 on pens against Blackpool after a 1-1 draw). I think the format was good and I am happy to see the same format again.”
And Peterborough United manager, Grant McCann, said: “We enjoyed the challenge of facing an under 21 side last season, albeit the result was nowhere near what we were looking for (Posh lost 6-1 to Norwich City U21).
“The competition has changed a lot in recent seasons, but it is still important to us.We have been successful in the past and if you ask any Peterborough United supporter, they will have great memories from that Wembley trip and result in 2014 (Posh beat Chesterfield 3-1 in the final).
“The revenue is important to EFL clubs and it is a trophy that we want to win again.We will be determined to be as successful as we can in the competition.”
Indeed, the prize money isn’t to be sniffed at. There’s £10,000 for a group stage win, £20,000 for a round two win, £40,000 for a round three win, £50,000 for a quarter-final win, £50,000 for the runner-up and £100,000 for the winner.
In 2016-17, 1,529 players appeared in the competition, 381 were English and under the age of 21 (24.9%), 212 were English between the ages of 21-23 (13.9%) and 138 players from invited teams were English and under the age of 21 (9 per cent).
The EFL say their objective is to increase these numbers year on year within a selection criteria that provides flexibility for managers and allows them to fully support the competition.
The Checkatrade Trophy is likely to have its critics again this season and fans may well decide to vote with their feet.
But the changes that have been made in terms of things like prize money, team selection and travelling are positive. In addition, young English players getting minutes under their belt in meaningful senior football is important.
Don’t expect a stampede at the turnstiles, but the Checkatrade Trophy may just have turned a corner…
Oh yes! Coventry’s George Thomas scores what turned out to be the winner against Oxford United last term Anyone there? Fleetwood’s empty stadium last season
Trophy joy: Mark Robins