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Late Tackle Football Magazine - - CONTENTS - JOHN LYONS looks at the prospects for a much­ma­ligned com­pe­ti­tion…

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

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