Was Sheffield United’s Checkatrade Trophy experience a portent of things to come?
If some folks within the game get their way then, yes, maybe. Chris Wilder’s team could well find themselves competing against Leicester City’s under-21’s and the like in the not so distant future.
Although, as the sparse attendances confirm, it is not a prospect which excites Football League supporters. Or, for that matter, those who follow top-flight teams.
The decision to grant clubs boasting Category A academies entry into the competition has proved controversial for a host of different reasons. Not least because, despite repeated denials, it stinks of League Three mission creep. Their presence, given that achieving this status costs around £2m per year, also serves to underline the increasing gulf between the have’s and have not’s.
Assistant manager Alan Knill admitted United were “unsure” about the type of team Claudio Ranieri would select for August’s Northern Group H fixture at Bramall Lane. Or, indeed, if the Italian would attend at all. What they were certain about, however, was that Wilder enjoyed no such freedom when it came to picking a side. Unless, of course, he wanted to hit his employers’ pocket.
“Each EFL club shall play its full available strength in and during all matches,” the competition’s rule book states. “The League will from time to time issue a policy as to what constitutes ‘full available strength’. Any club failing to meet this requirement will be required to pay a fine of up to £5,000.”
Wilder’s predecessors Nigel Adkins and Nigel Clough ignored this threat and picked who they wanted in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, as the tournament used to be known. The latter famously named his starting eleven and substitutes 24 hours before a visit to Hartlepool a couple of years ago.
But, given that even part-opening a ground which holds over 32,000 people is likely to have cost United money when City and then Walsall visited, wasting even more will understandably stick in their owners’ craws.
So what are the rules to which Leicester, Stoke City, Middlesbrough and other sides parachuted into the competition much adhere?
“For the invited clubs, a registered player is one who would be registered and eligible to participate in a Premier League and/or Premier League 2 match commencing at the same time and on the same date as the match in accordance with the provisions of the relevant Premier League rules,” the EFL state.
“Each invited club must ensure that in each match at least six of the starting eleven players named on the team sheet are players who were aged under 21 as at the 30th June in the year in which the season concerned commenced.”
Sounds suspiciously like a ‘B’ team to me.
Of course, many commentators have correctly pointed out that the PL’s decision to double the amount of prize money on offer during this season’s competition represents a vital source of revenue for financially troubled clubs. But I suspect it would not have been offered had the FL not agreed to the revamp. Nor, like Chinese stadium diplomacy, is it likely to be an altruistic act. Beijing has been building sports grounds across the globe for decades. Partly for humanitarian reasons but, as a World Policy Forum paper recently recognised, also to gain access to valuable mineral resources. And, it added, these projects are “catalysts for diplomatic recognition” too. Agendas, as those teams currently being acquired by Chinese owners might soon discover, can be skilfully concealed.
Richard Scudamore, the PL’s chief executive, has claimed this is not the case.
“Yes, of course we know some of our clubs would like B teams,” he told a national newspaper recently. “We look abroad and we see the benefit of B teams. It’s just for the English football structure and pyramid, it doesn’t work, and so this is it. We can console all these worried Football League clubs’ supporters. This isn’t the thin end of the wedge, this is the block. It’s the beginning of the end of it.”
Aside from the slightly patronising tone, we all know things can change. And fast. The PL threatened to cease solidarity payments if FL clubs did not vote through the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) in 2011. Advocates insist EPPP brings consistency to youth coaching and development. Although, as campaign group Against League 3 rightly argue, allowing PL teams to take part in this season’s Checkatrade Trophy “drives a coach and horses through these claims.” Until several declined their invitations, only top-flight clubs with category one academies were being considered for a place. So youngsters attached to Championship sides who also enjoy this status were set to be denied the same opportunities afforded to their PL counterparts until the matter descended into chaos.
Quite how this fits with the fundamental premise of EPPP is anybody’s guess.
The assumption that PL clubs are better served to develop players is flawed. Ten members of the 23 man England squad which travelled to Euro 2016 progressed through the ranks at FL teams. Former United defender Kyle Walker, Joe Hart and John Stones included. The latter has just completed a £47.5m transfer from Everton to Manchester City. Clearly Pep Guardiola thinks he was denied a proper footballing education at Oakwell.
The JP Trophy used to be a worthwhile competition. No matter what its detractors said. It provided those working further down the pyramid with a realistic shot at a medal. Their fans the prospect of a day out at Wembley too. But, in its present format, the Checkatrade version is a lame but potentially dangerous duck.