United continued their winning form in the Papa John’s Trophy last night, a Sam Smith goal ensuring a second-string U’s side victory over Tottenham’s kids. Whilst it’s good to see our younger players including Ben Worman and Kai Yearn get first team minutes under their belts, it’s disappointing to see that crowds in the competition are starting to creep up.
The EFL know full well what they’re doing – robbing what was once a reasonably interesting competition (some of our best nights came in the LDV in the early 00’s, including that run to the final in 2002) of any integrity and relevance by not only inviting Premier League youth sides to come and get pumped by League One and Two sides, but also by rigging the draw to ensure derby games, which have seen us drawn against fierce rivals B*ro and er… Northampton in previous seasons.
It’s clear the EFL Trophy is currently a rotten competition, that is well past it’s sell by date. The very fact that the EFL are resorting to such desperate measures to sell this competition to fans shows you as much. Personally I don’t think the league system will support the addition of U23 teams on a permanent basis, there’s already enough clubs in the 92 as it is, as the poorly-run likes of Derby, Colchester and Oldham are showing, but changes further down the pyramid could be devastating.
The lure of watching a load of kids who are nowhere near the first team (Spurs lowest squad number last night was 41, Man City fielded a 92 and 99 in their defeat to Doncaster) shouldn’t be that interesting to anyone other than a tiny handful of hardcore fans, so it’s a real shame to see a crowd of over two thousand at the Abbey last night. We know Spurs are local, and a bit of a draw, but we can only imagine there would have been a number of disappointed fans reading the team sheet and seeing the likes of Cesay and Craig instead of Kane and Son. We also appreciate that it’s not cheap to take kids to football these days, and with all that’s going on in the country at the moment (tax rises, energy price rises, food price rises etc) the chance to go and see live football for a few quid is an affordable way to get out of the house. We can only hope that youngsters or casual fans going last night with Spurs allegiances might finally realise that Tottenham are actually pretty shit, and that it’s a whole lot more fun to support the U’s instead.
But here’s the thing: this entire competition is dangerous. Supporting it by attending matches is dangerous. The draw is rigged. Whilst it might not lead to B-teams in the EFL, they could easily look at rearranging the football pyramid to suit their aims. A regionalised League One & Two? A National League with no promotion and relegation featuring PL U23 sides? All very realistic possibilities. We might not think that anything that happens at National League level affects us any more, but it’s worth remembering that before Bonner took over we were in real danger of returning there ourselves. Any club at this level is only a couple of bad seasons away from being in the Conference. The EFL clubs were bribed by the PL sides into accepting the new format of this competition and that sets a dangerous precedent. The Super League was quickly trashed, but the EFL Trophy has been going a few years now, and like a cockroach it refuses to die. PL sides dangling cash at the EFL in order to get what they want is at odds with the excellent Fair Game campaign spearheaded by our CEO Ian Mather. The current format of the EFL Trophy is exactly the kind of thing that Fair Game should be aiming to put a stop to – the two aren’t compatible with each other. To his credit Mather answered a fan on Twitter saying the competition has it’s uses for the club (getting minutes into youth/squad players) but that they would never support B teams in the League. We believe him, but there’s still questions to be answered about the power of large clubs to buy changes to the makeup of our game. If the EFL aren’t going to stand up to them, who is?