A BIT­TER PILL-EY!

Chair­man raps EFL Tro­phy

The Football League Paper - - FRONT PAGE - By John Lyons

AF­TER see­ing his side at­tract the low­est of a host of tiny crowds in the open­ing week of Check­a­trade Tro­phy games, Fleet­wood Town chair­man Andy Pil­ley has blasted the new-look com­pe­ti­tion.

Just 392 fans turned up to see the Cod Army beat Black­burn Rovers U21s last Tues­day, fu­elling Pil­ley’s view that the de­ci­sion to in­tro­duce Premier League and Cham­pi­onship academy sides was a bad one. He voted against the planned changes at the EFL’s sum­mer con­fer­ence in Por­tu­gal in June and be­lieves all the right ground­work wasn’t done to en­sure the tour­na­ment was a suc­cess. He also fears the in­tro­duc­tion of the academy sides could be the fore­run­ner to B teams in the EFL. “Peo­ple weren’t in­ter­ested in watch­ing Black­burn’s young­sters and there were poor gates across the coun­try – peo­ple voted with their feet,” he said. “In Por­tu­gal it was said that the likes of Wayne Rooney could play on your ground if he was com­ing back from in­jury, but clearly the re­search hadn’t been done and the big clubs con­sulted – they weren’t in­ter­ested.

“I think it’s the first step to­wards B teams in the Foot­ball League and that would dam­age what is the best league in the world.”

The EFL have de­fended the re­vamped Tro­phy and in­sists it needs time to bed in.

An EFL spokesman said: “Ad­mit­tedly, there were some dis­ap­point­ing gates at a num­ber of games but we are hope­ful at­ten­dances will im­prove as the com­pe­ti­tion starts to gather pace next month.”

EFL chief ex­ec­u­tive Shaun Har­vey was des­per­ate for the Check­a­trade Tro­phy to kick off af­ter a bar­rage of neg­a­tive pub­lic­ity in pre-sea­son – but the gates on open­ing night might have changed his mind.

Just 392 fans wit­nessed Fleet­wood Town’s 1-0 win against Black­burn U21s, the low­est crowd on Tues­day night. But turn­stile op­er­a­tors were hardly rushed off their feet at a host of other grounds, ei­ther.

There were just 461 to see AFC Wim­ble­don de­feat Swansea’s U21s 3-0, while a pal­try 585 wit­nessed Ac­cring­ton Stan­ley’s 3-0 home de­feat by Crewe Alexan­dra and only 760 sup­port­ers both­ered to turn up for Black­pool’s 2-1 vic­tory against Chel­tenham Town.

In ad­di­tion, crowds failed to hit the 1,000 mark for Ley­ton Ori­ent’s 3-1 suc­cess against Steve­nage (876), Craw­ley’s 1-0 win over Colch­ester United (881) and Ch­ester­field’s 2-1 vic­tory over Wolves U21s (950).

The only crowd that topped 3,000 was Sh­effield United’s 0-0 draw against Le­ices­ter City U21s (3,632) at Bra­mall Lane, the vis­it­ing Foxes win­ning 5-4 on penal­ties, while there were just five at­ten­dances over 2,000. But why was the turn-out so low? Well, the de­ci­sion to al­low 16 in­vited cat­e­gory one academy sides (in the event, ten from Premier League clubs and six Cham­pi­onship sides) to en­ter the com­pe­ti­tion, which has tra­di­tion­ally been for clubs in the lower two di­vi­sions of the Foot­ball League, has gone down like a lead bal­loon.

Shake-up

Fans de­cided to boy­cott games, hit­ting clubs in the pocket and gar­ner­ing a buck­et­load of neg­a­tive head­lines.

Not many peo­ple would ar­gue that the tour­na­ment didn’t need a re­vamp. There had been a se­ri­ous lack of in­ter­est from clubs and usu­ally the ex­cite­ment ramped up only in the lat­ter stages when Wem­b­ley was in sight.

But it’s dif­fi­cult to ar­gue that the EFL haven’t helped them­selves with the way they’ve han­dled the shake-up of the com­pe­ti­tion for­merly known as the John­stone’s Paint Tro­phy.

At the EFL’s sum­mer con­fer­ence in June, clubs voted to change the for­mat of the com­pe­ti­tion fol­low­ing a re­quest by the board of direc­tors.

Part of the pro­posal was a sea­son’s trial in which the 16 cat­e­gory one academy teams would be in­vited to join. The de­ci­sion was made on the ba­sis the com­pe­ti­tion was in ‘se­ri­ous need’ of in­no­va­tion to sur­vive.

In the event, 30 of the 48 League One and Two clubs were in favour, while 14 voted against.

How­ever, at that stage those vot­ing for change be­lieved the top clubs in the coun­try would be en­ter­ing their teams in the com­pe­ti­tion.

As it turned out, the EFL had egg on their face when the likes of Arse­nal, Liver­pool, Manch­ester United, Manch­ester City and Tot­ten­ham all turned down in­vi­ta­tions for their Un­der-21 teams to take part.

They cited sched­ul­ing is­sues, say­ing they would have a host of age group in­ter­na­tion­als away when the Tro­phy games were due to be played – in in­ter­na­tional weeks. Fleet­wood Town chair­man Andy Pil­ley

voted against the planned changes at the EFL’s sum­mer con­fer­ence in Por­tu­gal in June and be­lieves all the right ground­work wasn’t done to en­sure the tour­na­ment was a suc­cess. He also fears the in­tro­duc­tion of the academy sides could be the fore­run­ner to B teams in the EFL.

“Peo­ple weren’t in­ter­ested in watch­ing Black­burn’s young­sters and there were poor gates across the coun­try – peo­ple voted with their feet,” he said.

“In Por­tu­gal it was said that the likes of Wayne Rooney could play on your ground if he was com­ing back from in­jury but clearly the re­search hadn't

been done and the big clubs con­sulted – they weren’t in­ter­ested.

“I think it’s the first step to­wards B teams in the Foot­ball League and that would dam­age what is the best league in the world.”

If the idea of some of the big­gest clubs in the coun­try play­ing the cream of their crop could have been a crowd­win­ner, los­ing them was a hammer blow.

And the EFL also have ques­tions to an­swer as to why they didn’t pro­mote the pos­i­tive as­pects of the changes un­til the eve of the tour­na­ment.

While there was prize money of £478,000 last sea­son, this sea­son will see a whop­ping £1.95m, an in­crease of more than 300 per cent.

In ad­di­tion, clubs will pick up £10,000 per win in the ini­tial group stage, a not in­con­sid­er­able sum, and £5,000 per draw.

Prize money then climbs to £20,000, £40,000 and £50,000 in sub­se­quent rounds, with the run­ners-up bag­ging £50,000 and the win­ners a cool £100,000.

Har­vey said: “Of the 48 EFL clubs that com­peted in the com­pe­ti­tion last sea­son, 29 teams earned less than £10,000 from it and 37 re­ceived less than £20,000.

“With £10,000 on of­fer for each group stage vic­tory, it is clear to see there are now tan­gi­ble short­term fi­nan­cial ben­e­fits to the Check­a­trade Tro­phy, as well as the more es­tab­lished longerterm ones. This has not been pos­si­ble pre­vi­ously.”

Per­haps if the EFL had banged the drum ear­lier about the greater fi­nan­cial re­wards on of­fer, they would have al­le­vi­ated some of the crit­i­cism.

Crit­i­cism

But it’s not just about the money. How many fans want to watch their team play group games in the Check­a­trade Tro­phy? There are 46 games in Leagues One and Two, while clubs have also got the FA Cup and EFL Cup to take part in.

Put­ting on more matches means more cost for sup­port­ers, es­pe­cially if there is sig­nif­i­cant trav­el­ling in­volved. The va­garies of the group stage sys­tem (groups to in­clude one in­vited club and at least one club from each of League One and League Two) meant you ended up with quar­tets such as Black­pool, Bolton, Chel­tenham and Ever­ton U21s plus AFC Wim­ble­don, New­port County, Ply­mouth Ar­gyle and Swansea U21s.

The dan­ger of a group stage set-up is you could end up with dead rub­bers fur­ther down the line – and what at­ten­dances will those matches at­tract?

One of the other sug­gested pos­i­tives for the new-look com­pe­ti­tion was that it would help the best young play­ers in Eng­land get some com­pet­i­tive match ac­tion un­der their belt, though the fact the top clubs pulled out rather am­bushed that idea.

All in all, the Check­a­trade Tro­phy has had a tough bap­tism. There was even con­fu­sion over what age group the in­vited cat­e­gory one teams would be.

In a state­ment on Mon­day, the EFL said: “It has been brought to the EFL’s at­ten­tion that a num­ber of me­dia out­lets are re­port­ing that the in­vited cat­e­gory one teams, due to play their open­ing Check­a­trade Tro­phy fix­tures this week, will be un­der-23 teams. This is not the case.

“The eli­gi­bil­ity cri­te­ria for the com­pe­ti­tion is as fol­lows: EFL clubs (League One and League Two) a min­i­mum of five ‘first team’ play­ers in the start­ing XI, as de­fined un­der the com­pe­ti­tion’s ex­ist­ing rules.

“In­vited cat­e­gory one clubs, six of the start­ing XI to be Un­der-21 (as at June 30).”

Where that con­fu­sion arose is a mys­tery, but it’s a sign of the Check­a­trade Tro­phy’s trou­bled be­gin­nings. Will things get bet­ter? The signs aren’t promis­ing. It could be a long road un­til the fi­nal at Wem­b­ley on April 2 next year.

CALM BE­FORE THE STORM Shaun Har­vey with the tro­phy.

PIC­TURE: Ac­tion Im­ages

SPOT THE SPEC­TA­TOR: Empty stands are a sad back drop to the match at Fleet­wood

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