The future of the EFL Trophy will be decided by League One and League Two football clubs at a meeting in May. The much-maligned tournament, rebranded the Checkatrade Trophy this season, has seen a number of rule changes in recent years, the most controversial of which was the introduction of under-23 “B Teams” for Premier League and Championship clubs with Category 1 academies. Fans of lower league teams angered by the changes boycotted the competition leading to record-low attendances at grounds across the country. Many fans accepted that the Checkatrade Trophy needed to be rejuvenated but rejected the manner in which the EFL set about doing this, with fears about the introduction of B Teams into the league pyramid paramount in the minds of some supporters.
But it’s not just the introduction of B Teams that has drawn the ire of clubs and fans; rules which require League One and League Two clubs to field a minimum of five first-team players have led to situations which some commentators have labelled farcical, such as the substitution of Bradford City’s goalkeeper, Colin Doyle, after just three minutes of a game against Bury. After the game, the Bantams’ assistant manager, Kenny Black, quipped “I thought [Doyle] had a poor 45 seconds”. Clubs which fail to comply with the current rules on fielding “full-strength” sides will be subject to a fine of up to £5,000 from the EFL. Not all of the EFL’s reforms have been met with anger. The introduction of a group-stage to the competition in place of the pure knockout format means that teams have been able to blood more young players than in previous years and clubs are more likely to receive performance related bonuses from the EFL.
However the EFL appears to have recognised the frailties of the competition’s current format and rules. In a statement, the EFL set out a number of options for the future of the tournament, including a reversion to the 48-team format with no “invited teams” from the Premier League and the Championship and a “significant increase in prize money”. The EFL also mooted the idea of reducing the number of first-team players that lower league clubs are required to field from five to four (excluding the goalkeeper). At the more extreme end of the spectrum, the EFL hasn’t ruled out scrapping the tournament altogether.
The EFL have a difficult job in balancing the interests of lower league clubs and the invited teams from the Premier League and Championship. A reformed Checkatrade Trophy tournament will need to engage the imagination of fans of lower league teams to boost falling attendances. Fuller stadia would in turn assist clubs with meeting the costs of opening their grounds for games. The EFL’s proposals to incentivise clubs to field stronger teams with a significant increase in prize money would likely be a more effective inducement for lower league sides to engage with the competition than the somewhat artificial constraints that are currently placed on managers. There is no simple answer to the current malaise around the competition but it is clear that the present format is not an enticing prospect for fans. We will have to wait until May for the decision of League One and League Two clubs, but one thing seems certain; change is coming to the Checkatrade Trophy.