While this may not seem the most relevant topic for me to focus on this week (considering no more games are being played in the competition until 4th October), I felt something had to be said on this subject in response to all the negativity surrounding the tournament during the first round of matches. Also, I do have to admit I found little inspiration from any other topics in my judgement this week, so this was in a way the subject that found me. Anyway, I’ve heard a lot of arguments against the reformation of what was previously the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, into what is now the EFL/Checkatrade Trophy, in recent weeks, stating beliefs that it could only be a bad thing for English football, but I see a totally different situation to these sceptics. Maybe it's because I’m an outsider to the tournament, I haven’t attended any matches, I haven’t seen any on TV, nor have I been involved in the creation of the competition, but one thing I do hold is being a passionate fan of the English national team, as well as Brighton and Hove Albion, whose under-23’s are taking part in Group G in the Southern section of the Trophy. From my perspective, then, the changes only seem a positive thing, but I definitely understand the points put forward by opposition to the new version of the Trophy, and have put them into consideration before forming my own opinion on what the EFL Trophy could mean for English football, from the senior national side to the lesser sides of Leagues One and Two. Sticking up for the money men and providing a positive opinion of something they’ve done for once; here I am declaring my support for the new EFL Trophy.
First off, I think I might as well clear up what the aforementioned changes are to what was previously (to me, anyway, considering I’ve only known it ever since I first played FIFA, in what must’ve been 2009) the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, although strictly speaking it was the Football League Trophy. Just to make sure there are no doubts, the FA introduced the concept of a 64-team group stage, in which there are eight sets of four sides, in both the Northern and Southern sections, including a total of 16 academy sides, most of which are under-23 sides. Prior to this, the tournament ran on a set-up of immediate knockout football with the 48 clubs of Leagues One and Two, with the Northern and Southern sections very much in place. So, basically the change is that there are far more sides competing; there is an extra round to the competition and, biggest of all, academy sides, with no history of competitive senior matches, no independent stature, nor any budgets of their own to bring players in.
Naturally, then, there was bound to be a slight (bit of an understatement) backlash to the alterations, as the cynics and stereotypically rigid fans crawled out of their holes in the ground at the opportunity to lambast the changes on Twitter, club forums and blogs, much like this one. It’s these kind of people (although I could be classed as one myself, oh the irony) who really tarnish the reputation of football fans everywhere (well, more than it has already been), as they seem to only want to discourage brave and forward-thinking change in favour of keeping things regimentally as they currently are, in an ineffective and backwards system. It’s as if they feel it is their duty to protect the sacred ways of old from the changing times of the 21st Century, holding onto even the smallest, most insignificant things in their lives until they realise they really have no say over the matter. Or maybe it’s just a hipster way to think; going against the grain, with ‘edgy’, ‘retro’ opinions, shrugging shoulders and spilling hummus in their finely-shaped beards as they get across their totally ‘individual’ beliefs, man. Yeah, right, mate.
Back to the blog, please. Alright, Will, let’s do this. Before I get into the benefits that my (usually) unspectacled eyes can make out, I’ll run through the main points that the doubters of this new age put forward as their main objections. Primarily, my understanding is that the overall lack of young English players in the academies of the sixteen sides was the main weapon in their arsenal in their pursuit of something – oh yes, it must have been reversion back to the old system, which altogether appears ridiculous and totally unrealistic. And yes, this is definitely an understandable point to use to get an advantage over the side of the debate that those at the FA, as well as people like me, back up, as without the right statistics it is pretty difficult to come back from, glancing over the results and line-ups last week. Well, after some extensive research on my part, I have discovered that this argument may actually be a little redundant, especially when you compare the figures against the precious League One and League Two sides of these ‘standing up for the little guy’ artists. On average, in the Northern section, in the first round of matches, academy sides fielded a total of 2.375 non-British (for this, I’m defining it as anyone not of English, Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish nationality) players in their starting XI, while their opponents responded with an exactly identical average of 2.375. In the Southern section, however, academy sides started with a mean of 2.75 foreigners, whereas their League One/Two counterparts (the ones they played, anyway) had a very similar 2.625. I must add, as well, the likes of Chelsea, Southampton and Middlesbrough, all Premier League clubs with highly developed academies that would imagine are packed full of foreigners, only started one overseas player each, whereas League One sides Milwall and Bradford both selected five, yes five, foreigners players, representing a surprisingly high 45% of their starting elevens.
Many were also quick to point out some notable use of the rather lax rules to the advantage of academies as well, as Leicester used Luis Hernandez, Marcin Wasilewski and Yohan Benalouane, whilst Stoke played Marc Muniesa and Charlie Adam, Sunderland used Jan Kirchhoff and Jason Denayer, and Swansea started Marvin Emnes and Gerhard Tremmel. Yes, all of these players are senior professionals and shouldn’t be playing all that often in their clubs’ under-23 sides, but they all required match fitness, and this was the best way to get it for them. All they needed was the one match to get back into their stride, and they will not have to bother with the competition again, there’s nothing too bad about that, surely? Anyway, who hasn’t moved a few of their senior players who aren’t getting a game into the under-21’s or under-18’s in Football Manager? You can’t have it both ways you know…
But I suppose the wider point I should be honing in on is the development of young British players, the whole point of this new format, and whether it is working. Well, honestly, you’d be foolish and short-sighted to look at the system already and comment on whether young players are coming though, because, after all, there’s only been one round of matches played so far. Looking over the academy squads entered this season though, I’d argue that there are many decent options that, if they performed well against senior Football League teams, could definitely stake down places in the youth set-ups of England (or Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland). For example, Chelsea’s academy featured ten Englishmen in their XI against Swindon, of whom one was 16, three were 17, five were 18, one was 19, and their substitute goalscorer Mukhtar Ali was also English, and 18. If such promise, demonstrated by a side losing only 2-1 away to a League One side in their first professional match, is there at such a young age at clubs with incredible world-class facilities such as Chelsea, surely there is a future for the England team.
Admitted, it’s not as if every one of them will go on to represent the senior national team, but each of them do have the experience of playing for their country at some youth stage, ranging from under-17’s up to under-21’s, and also now have the string to their bows that they have competed to the very end against senior professional sides, which can only be a positive for their development. Learning to play in different situations, against players of different builds, and being the underdogs, these players are getting the workout they honestly deserve if they are going to progress through the ranks at club and international levels. And it’s important to stress that this isn’t just the case for Chelsea’s youth players, this is the case at a lot of the top youth academies across the country, and could be for so many more if they were accepted into competitions such as these, as well as the possible future addition of B Teams into professional leagues.
Now, I know that as soon as I have said that, the vehement and uncompromising doubters of the system will have made their minds up about my mental state, stating that anybody who believes in the future of B Teams in the English football league structure is crazy and wildly optimistic. But I see the possible opportunity for the introduction of youth sides into professional senior leagues as a purely positive thing, for so many reasons. First off, the ‘hipster’ fans - only really as hipster as the moaning octogenarians who share their views of a return to the ‘good old days’, which ironically, are also crazy and totally unrealistic - will be lamenting the structure of the Premier League and it’s astronomically fast growth into the biggest league in the world. As you could probably guess, they aren’t fans of the league with the widest array of foreign talent in the world, as if representing the jealous neighbours, peering through their curtains at the party next door, where waves of rich business partners have been invited by the flashy family next-door, and are feasting on a delectable platter of nibbles sourced from every corner of the earth, purely for the entertainment of the guests. They then start to complain to each other in their own front room, whilst also ironically tucking into a dinner made from ingredients which have travelled half the world to get to the plate. If you hadn’t guessed, the food represents foreign players, and how those who are sticking up for League One and League Two clubs are actually creating the problems they later criticise by overanalysing the ways others (in the Premier League) do things, without looking in the mirror as they do the exact same, proven by the statistics I dug up earlier on how many overseas players Football League clubs did use. Maybe they do it just to provoke a response, or to gain views, or to stick to the unbending philosophy they set themselves up to follow (by the way, the main blog I am pointing the finger at here is the Stand Against Modern Football article from almost two months ago now, from a website and cause I’d usually be supporting, but not on this matter).
Aside from this, one of the most mind-bending and genuinely laughable contradictions to their argument is that they would never actually care about the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, or now the Checkatrade Trophy by sponsorship reckonings, unless the Premier League, or the militarily-imposed dictatorship of modern football, as they might call it, actually got involved in the first place. They would toddle along, not giving the tournament a second thought, as their sworn enemies hadn’t given it a glance either, instead attacking modern football on any of a spinning tombola’s-worth full of subjects. But as soon as those ‘in power of the game’, the FA, who can do no right in their eyes, touched their now-sacred tournament, oh they just had to do something to stand up and get their voice heard. It doesn’t change anything; it wouldn’t make those at the FA tremble in their boots and rethink their whole lives overnight, and it most certainly won’t revert things to how they were in the golden days of… oh yes, 2015, the time that those against modern football are supposed to hate.
Besides the points those writing these articles make, it’s not as if the clubs who actually competed over the past few years, those county towns and historical settlements of around 100,000 inhabitants in the modern day, say your average Crawley Town’s, Chesterfield’s, Colchester’s or Oldham’s (the four sides I could find best representing 100,000 people each), actually cared for the tournament anyway. Of course, they respected it and put out reasonably acceptable excuses for their best teams, but for those in the boardroom, manager’s office, or the dressing room, it was never the first priority of the season for which they would focus their resources, rather the fourth, after the League, FA Cup, and the similarly renamed EFL Cup (League Cup). So why the sudden backlash by supporters, many of whom have decided to take part in a ‘#bteamboycott’ (idiotic, as nothing has really happened with the introduction of B Teams yet), leaving stadiums half full for EFL Trophy matches? Well, I suppose it’s a bit like the vote to leave the European Union by British voters really, as they just want a way to display their anger with the establishment, even though their lives have probably been improved in the wider picture by it, and a simple protest seemed the best way to do it. They think they’re being smart, but honestly they are an embarrassment, and more than anything a sad testament to the backwards thinking and overall lack of wider social progress in this county over the past 50 to 75 years. They want out of a system that is working, but is clearly imperfect, as they have been tricked into thinking the grass would be greener if they voted with their feet into a fluffy and non-existent future by ‘edgy’ and ‘relatable’ rebel rousers. Wow, I never realised the #bteamboycott was so much like the EU Referendum, now that is shocking. The only difference is, I suppose, that the former is being performed by hipster millennials.
If these misguided people actually admired the facts and statistics of the debate, I’m sure they minds could be made up a different way much quicker than they believe. And no, you are allowed to swallow your pride if you are proven wrong, you can change your opinion, it’s not shameful to do so, as our society would like to suggest to you, with newspapers for people of different social classes to further divide every one of us. You don’t have to be influenced by anyone, just, if you were smart, by cold, hard facts, which better present the situation better than any politician ever could with clever word-play and techniques of speaking which have been drilled into them with hours of relentless media training.
Right, so the facts are, on the B Team debate, that the very system of youth teams in senior professional leagues is used in (amongst others) Spain, Germany, Portugal, Japan, the Netherlands and most recently the USA, which allowed academy sides into their third tier, the United Soccer League, from 2014, but not currently, nor ever in the past, by England. So, the winners of the last five tournaments available to European nations in the first three, the side that has been champions of Asia in four of the eight Asian Cups they have entered, the nation that has been second and third in the past two World Cups, and a rapidly growing homeland for modern football which have gone further in the past two World Cups than England. Hmmmm, something seems to be going on here, doesn’t it? Some sort of pattern emerging? Well, it’s not by chance, as the youth of these nations have been allowed to prosper by testing themselves early against the talent of senior, bulkier, more experienced professionals, whilst in England they are held back like toddlers from the real world, only to be thrown in after an injury crisis, in which they are judged to fit the bill or fall out the back door after just 90 minutes of action. Something about our approach doesn’t seem all that fair, does it? Obviously, the debate for B Teams is something for another day, for both me and the FA, but I think it would be unwise to back such a move towards keeping up, honestly, with the rest of the cutting-edge world, rather than trying to prove we are the best with our embarrassing, outdated style.
Those who criticise the changes to the EFL Trophy this season by using the simple tagline that ‘it will lead to the introduction of B Teams’ as if it is some evil, never to even be mentioned in conversation, let alone suggested as a real possibility, are the ones who infuriate me the most though. They play to the theme that everyone is like-minded to them, just sat there complaining about ‘football these days’ with a sigh and a scrunched up nose in anger of the very cheek of these youngsters to come along and ruin our game, when they are the ones that are holding back football from what it could be.
The potential in introducing a ‘League Three’ as some believe it will be – in which the Football League system becomes split into five divisions of 20 sides, with eight academy sides (or more) to supplement the 92 league clubs – would be immense for the future of football in this country, as it would give our youngsters serious opportunities to progress. These sides wouldn’t be focusing on making money (as their senior sides would be the businesses), but just playing football and improving skill, some of which would accordingly turn out on the international stage for England, adding to the options in the National Pool for future national team managers, some of whom might even begin their careers in charge of academy sides. Worried about too many foreigners getting in the academy sides of each club? Campaign for changes from the FA, who will, I’m certain, get it sorted, as it is in their interest, and their complete control, to improve opportunities for English players. When you put it like that, it doesn’t seem so bad, does it? Granted, everything wouldn’t be 100% perfect, but nothing ever is these days. Honestly though, you have to give these things time, as five to ten years will be the time period in which change is clearly seen, and surely we as fans can’t be the ones to get in the way of positive, forward-thinking change in society? Even if it doesn’t quite bring wide-scale changes to the fate of the English national team in a decade’s time, at least giving these constitutional changes to the EFL Trophy, and possibly support towards the involvement of B Teams, would be worth the risk? Or are we too set in our ways, too resistant to change, too brainwashed by history, to ever see things in the way they should be; with hope? I seriously hope, for the sake of English football, that the latter isn’t the truth.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!