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Men against boys

Men against boys

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Since 2016, 16 Premier League or ‘category one’ academies have entered teams into the EFL Trophy to gain valuable experience, The changes aren’t working. 


Transcript

Andrew Butler: Hi, I’m Andrew and this is the Playmaker.

One story, every day to make sense of the world of football.

Today, pitching boys against men: the cup competition that’s losing credibility.

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“… and with 90 plus two minutes… Newcastle United’s Under 21s three…”

Mansfield Town FC, YouTube

Once, the English Football League Trophy – also known as the Papa John’s Trophy for sponsorship reasons – was a competition for teams in Leagues One and Two.  It was a chance for teams in the lower tiers to win silverware.

It wasn’t the highest priority for clubs since it started in 1984, but no fan is going to say no to a day out at Wembley and the chance to win a trophy.

Then, five years ago the rules changed.  Other teams – interlopers, some said – were brought into the competition and they were from the Premier League.

Or, rather, their under-21 academy teams. 

In all, 16 new teams were allowed in.  They were from Premier League academies or clubs with ‘Category One academy’ status – teams from the Championship. 

It was –  quote – “part of their ongoing commitment to creating more and better home grown players.”

The fans of League One and Two weren’t happy. They saw it as encroachment – a land grab by the giants of the game. And the fans voted with their feet.

On matchdays, the hashtag #BTeamBoycott flies around social media.  Attendances are a fraction of what they are for league matches.

Take The Valley, home to Charlton Athletic.  It has a capacity of 27,000 people, but average attendance this year for the Papa John’s Trophy is 1,047. 

[Clip showing how empty the stadium is]

But this is more than just upset fans and small crowds.  Arguably, the whole premise just isn’t working.

Routinely, the Premier League clubs’ under-21 sides are getting thrashed. 

Last week, Port Vale beat Liverpool Under-21 5-0. That clip you heard earlier was Mansfield scoring their sixth against Newcastle’s Under-21s in their 6-3 win. Manchester City, one of the great academies in English football, saw their Under 21s also beaten 5-0 last month, by Rotherham.

You’ll often hear pundits comment on games saying it’s like watching men against boys – the EFL Trophy is literally that. The group stages wrapped up last week, and in the 16 groups only three Premier League Under-21 teams got through to the next round. 

In the five years they’ve been in the competition, only one Premier League Under-21 team – Chelsea – has reached the semi-finals. So, what lessons are being learned from having these teams in the competition?

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Young players get to play against experienced players – that’s broadly a positive thing.

But getting beaten heavily? Does anyone learn anything from that? 

Think about the UEFA Nations League in international football – it was brought in to put an end to ‘meaningless’ friendly fixtures, and categorised countries according to world rankings. 

So you have the likes of Gibraltar playing against San Marino, in games that actually matter. That model has worked. Just listen to what Gibraltar FA’s General Secretary Ivan Robba said after Gibraltar got promoted up a league in the Nations League.

“I don’t think it gets any bigger than this. It’s fair to say the Nations League is a new competition but you can only play the competition you’re taking part in.”

Ivan Robba, Gibraltar FA’s General Secretary

Competitive football only works if it’s competitive. Which, you could argue, isn’t the case for Premier teams in the EFL Trophy. 

And off the pitch, all it’s done is put fans of League One and Two clubs’ noses out of joint.

There is a bigger thing at play here, too. 

There’s a sense that some at the top level of the game would like to see reserve teams, or B-teams, enter into the lower tiers of English football. 

Pep Guardiola, Manchester City’s manager, said in September that it’d be better for reserve teams, made up mainly of academy players, to play in the Championship or League One, rather than play in their own academy level leagues, to gain further experience of men’s football. 

He drew on his own experience of managing Barcelona, where Barcelona’s B team play in the third tier of Spanish football. They have a similar arrangement in Germany, where Bayern Munich’s B-team play in lower league football. 

Entering B-team’s into the English football pyramid would be controversial – fans are protective about the heritage of their teams.. 

But the experiment of academy teams entering the EFL Trophy isn’t working in its current state.  It suits neither the top clubs nor those in the lower leagues.

Today’s episode was written by Andrew Butler, and produced by Studio Klong.