Ross Bramble reflects on the changes to the Checkatrade or EFL Trophy competition and considers what positives, if any, can restore some of its previous shine.
One of my favourite cup competitions in the UK is the EFL Trophy, contested between the teams of League One and League Two. Part of my love stems from my own club’s success in the tournament back in 2009, which marked Southampton’s first silverware since 1976.
What eternalised my love for the cup wasn’t just my own memories. When you support an EFL club, you know that the FA Cup and the League Cup are fantasies; you might make the quarter finals if you get a nice set of draws, but anything beyond the opening two or three rounds is a bit of a pipe dream.
The EFL Trophy, though, is something different – something tangible. It’s the truest way to Wembley, the most likely memory-maker of your season, and with each round you pass, the more fearless you become. The more you believe.
In 2016, the EFL announced plans to revamp the competition by adding Premier League and Championship under-21 teams into the mix. The 48 clubs that make up England’s lowest professional leagues were rightly upset. Owners, managers and fans alike protested to no avail, and since the 16-17 season, the EFL Trophy (or Checkatrade Trophy) has operated under a group stage and knock-out set-up.
Portsmouth is an interesting case study for the amended format. On Sunday, Pompey left Wembley with the trophy after a thrilling contest with Sunderland, which culminated in a penalty shoot-out after a 2-2 draw. The tie set a new EFL Trophy final attendance record with 85,021 fans cramming into the home of English football.
On the face of it, you’d think that such a statistic indicates success.
The new format faced a rocky start back in 2016. A total of 12 EFL clubs were issued fines for “not taking the cup seriously”. Bradford, Blackpool, Bristol Rovers, Charlton, Fleetwood, Luton, MK Dons, Millwall, Peterborough, Sheffield United, Southend, and this past Sunday’s winners, Portsmouth were all punished. In fact, Pompey broke their lowest post-war attendance record in the EFL Trophy, when a meagre 1,355 fans watched their side play Reading’s U21s.
This was by no means a phenomenon contained between the walls of Fratton Park. Bristol Rovers cancelled their away coach services for the first time in 40 years due to lack of interest that same year, and Stevenage vs Brighton failed to attract even 500 fans.
This year, Carlisle vs Morecambe drew 1,213 in the cup, compared to 3,749 for the same fixture in the league four months later. Both ties were played on a Tuesday, so there was no Saturday bias to pin the turnout on, either.
If it’s not attracting the EFL fans, then, is it at least doing something for the U21 teams competing in it? Well, in 2016-17, Swansea’s U21 made it to the quarter finals. Last season, Chelsea’s U21s reached the semi-finals before defeat to eventual winners Lincoln, and this season, the furthest adventurers were Manchester City. In all three instances, these clubs were the only U21 representatives in their respective rounds.
The initial fear when the plans were announced was that elite academies would monopolise the tournament as elite first teams have the FA and League Cups. The record so far at least shows that the EFL clubs aren’t being blown away, but when Chelsea and Man City are two of the three youth sides making it deepest into the tournament, the fear still lingers.
A trophy that once felt unique, untainted and attainable for the lowest ranked clubs in our professional pyramid is starting to feel a little sullied. Some of those blemishes will have been washed away by an outstanding EFL Trophy final between Sunderland and Portsmouth. The passion from their fans also perfectly demonstrates what the tournament can offer when it’s at its best.
The EFL will be keen to highlight the record-breaking turnout on Sunday. It would seem more prudent of them, however, to pay heed to the trail of broken records that led us there.
Follow Ross on Twitter @rossbramble