EFL Trophy: What next for English football's most divisive competition?

Kurt Zouma of Chelsea (left), Coventry collect EFL Trophy at Wembley and small crowd at Charlton
Coventry City won the revamped EFL Trophy during a season in which they look likely to be relegated to League Two

Devalued, important for youth development, a theatrical disaster, a success story, terrible for public relations. The Checkatrade Trophy was called many things this season.

But one thing is for certain - the revamped and renamed English Football League Trophy in 2016-17 was controversial, with fans across the country boycotting many games as clubs with Category One academies from the Premier League and Championship were invited to compete.

Lower-league clubs were even fined for selecting "weakened" teams and Bradford changed their goalkeeper after three minutes to comply with the rules for the most irrelevant piece of silverware on offer in the top four tiers of the English game.

While Coventry were crowned champions in front of nearly 75,000 spectators at Wembley Stadium - in what was described as a "fairytale in a bubble" for much maligned Sky Blues fans - the merits and future of the competition continue to be debated after EFL chief executive Shaun Harvey said it "does have a future" in its revamped format.

Before Tuesday's meeting of League One and League Two clubs, where the competition's format will be discussed, BBC Sport spoke to club bosses, managers, coaches, fans and public relations professionals about the divisive competition.

Anger replaced by positive vibes

Chelsea Under-21s players watch penalty shootout against Oxford
Chealsea were the highest-profile Premier League side to accept the invitation to play in the EFL Trophy

League Two side and semi-finalists Luton Town were among the most heavily-fined clubs in the tournament, as one of two teams slapped with a £15,000 penalty for failing to field 'full-strength' sides in the group stages.

They were also one of the most vocal critics of the competition - traditionally a knockout tournament for League One and League Two clubs - before going on to earn £130,000 in prize money, all while unapologetically defying competition rules to field youth players.

Hatters chief executive Gary Sweet told BBC Sport: "We took the view, however, that the fines were an investment in our youth system to benefit the club in the long run.

"Purely from a Luton Town perspective, giving so many of our young players a genuine opportunity to showcase their talent in first-team games turned an adverse feeling about the competition into a positive vibe, despite being harshly fined the maximum tariff for breaking Rule 7.3 concerning team selection.

"Our progress to the semi-finals was an obvious bonus and a clear indication that our youngsters deserved their inclusion.

"We showed the competition a tremendous amount of respect from day one, but strongly felt we should be able to use it to give our academy talent a chance to experience senior football, especially given that the initial principle of the revised format was to promote young talent.

"We do not believe that right should be exclusive to Category One clubs and found it perplexing when the EFL promoted its statistical success in this area whilst issuing maximum fines to us and other clubs for following a strategic directive."

Statistics provided by the EFL state that 27% of players who started Checkatrade Trophy matches were English under-21s (up from 23% in 2015-16, and 18% in 2014-15).

On average, 67% of Luton's starting XI - and 78% of their matchday squads - for the group games were under-21 and English. They even fielded the youngest first-team player in their history, with 15-year-old Connor Tomlinson coming off the bench in their win at Gillingham.

Luton say their progress and emphasis on youth "excited and engaged" fans, so much so that half of the fines the club received were paid off by supporter donations.

Elephant in the room

Luton, who were among five clubs to release statements to confirm they voted against the pilot when the revamped competition was confirmed in June 2016, point to bigger issues around the inclusion of second-string Premier League sides as there remains lingering concerns about clubs fielding B teams in lower divisions.

"If Premier League clubs are supportive of extended entry, our position is that we would get behind a restructured proposal as long as team selection restrictions are removed and other measures to promote the competition to fans are included," added Sweet.

"Let's put aside the elephant in the room - the issue of B teams. If we ever felt there was ever a possibility of a reformatted Checkatrade Trophy leading to an introduction of B teams into our league structure we would categorically oppose it whatever incentives were on offer.

"Upon receipt of assurances that the inclusion of Category One academy clubs was not the thin end of the wedge, which included a positive change in voting power for clubs, and putting aside the less-than-articulate communication of its introduction, we can't deny that there are some positive footballing advantages to the dynamics of playing academy teams."

EFL must take note of empty 'theatres'

Coventry City
Coventry were not alone in getting small crowds for the early rounds, but took in excess of 43,000 fans to the final at Wembley

The early stages of the revamped competition were marked by poor, and in some cases miniscule, crowds.

Only 274 watched West Brom Under-21's lose at home to Gillingham on 8 November, the lowest crowd in this season's competition.

Coventry City, who ended up taking more than 43,000 fans to Wembley, attracted their lowest-ever attendance to a first-team game when only 1,338 spectators turned up for the second-round tie against Crawley Town.

Mansfield Town manager Steve Evans, whose team were defeated by Wycombe in the quarter-finals in front of a crowd of 2,047 - the biggest attendance of any match the Stags played in during the competition this term - said the EFL should take heed of the almost universal spectator boycott.

"The format was wrong and you can tell that when you look at football supporters around the country," Evans told BBC Radio Nottingham.

"We should never forget that it is not about teams and clubs - football is about supporters. It is very much like the theatre, you are only as good as your audience. Supporters voted in the early rounds with their feet.

"Yes, it got a little more interesting towards the semi-finals, but that is largely because there were good clubs involved for that level.

"The format has to change. We have to find a new format that delivers what they set out to deliver - a platform for youngsters to play. But no Premier League lads up against experienced players from League One and League Two, that doesn't work."

'Unique and rewarding for young players'

Stuart Sinclair of Bristol Rovers tackles Andy Rinomhoto of Reading in Checkatrade Trophy
Reading won just one of their three group games in the Checkatrade Trophy

Eight of the 16 invited sides with Category One academies, including Chelsea, failed to qualify from their four-team group, while Swansea went furthest - losing in the quarter-finals.

Inclusion of Premier League clubs saw the prize money increase to £1.95m - a rise of more than 300% on the previous year.

In total, 62 English under-21 players started three or more games for the 16 invited teams - which did not include Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Newcastle and Tottenham, as they all declined the invitation to play.

Reading's Under-21 side finished second in their group behind League Two side Yeovil, and went on to beat Southampton's academy team before going out in the round of 16 against the Glovers.

Without hesitation, Royals academy director Lee Herron says they would nominate themselves to take part in the competition again as it was a "fantastic" and "unique" experience for the club's emerging talent.

"It was certainly a success story and one that we hope that we can embrace again next year," said Herron. "Not for one minute did we or any of the players get caught up in the national perspective of the tournament being devalued.

"When we played Portsmouth, Yeovil and Bristol Rovers, we didn't feel there was that element going on with their players or those people watching the game. Of course you could see it in the media and elsewhere and understand people opinions, but we didn't feel it personally.

"The experience of playing at that young age against players who are in those leagues week in, week out is a great challenge. Surely that can only improve young British players across the country."

Elsewhere, Wolves gave first-team debuts to four players after their performances in the EFL Trophy.

Wolves Under-21 coach Scott Sellars said: "It is benchmarking to put them up against senior players and it showed our head coach, Paul Lambert, just how far they have progressed.

"He watched the game against Accrington, who included two men with Premier League experience, and he was able to see which of our players were ready. It speaks volumes that we have had four youngsters making their first-team debuts this season."

The fans' view

Fans at Wembley for Checkatrade Trophy
More people attended this season's EFL Trophy final than any other to have been held at the new Wembley

Playing in front of sizeable crowds, however, was never part of the experience for the invited sides.

David Johnson, a Coventry City fan and spokesman for the Jimmy Hill Way Campaign - the coalition of Sky Blues fan groups - said he, like many supporters he knows, only attended EFL Trophy games once under-age Premier League and Championship clubs where knocked out.

"Why would I have gone to some of the games that were little more then a reserve team game or kick about? Once it got serious and back to what it should be, a competition for League One and League Two clubs, I made the effort," he said.

"While it might be a Mickey Mouse competition, we got to Wembley, the national stadium and there were 40,000+ City supporters there - brilliant.

"But we recognise that, along the way, it was devalued as a trophy."

A win for the sponsors?

Meagre crowds and a controversial new format elevated the competition as a newsworthy item on the football calendar.

Checkatrade, in their first season as naming rights sponsors, found themselves included in the debate - which, according to the vice president of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations Rob Brown, "did the job" when it came to raising brand awareness.

So, does the old adage of 'there is no such thing as bad news' apply?

"For Checkatrade, absolutely," Brown, who runs Manchester-based agency Rule 5, told BBC Sport. "As sponsors they don't, in a sense, suffer from the negative publicity. However, it is bad for the English Football League.

"It is absolutely terrible PR for the EFL. What they are looking to communicate to their stakeholders is that they are creating entertainment and excitement - they have failed on all of those counts. From their point of view it is disastrous.

"Checkatrade have probably done well out of it. And, when you think about it, it is absolutely extraordinary because the story is that an almost-pointless football competition becomes even more pointless. On the face of it that is not a massive story, but it's the degree to which has become a laughing stock within the sport that has brought the awareness.

"While it is good brand awareness for them, everyone wants to be associated with things that are successful, so it is only a short-term gain for Checkatrade."

BBC Sport contacted Checkatrade, but nobody was available for comment.

Top Stories