On Tuesday and Wednesday night, the first group game of the newly formatted ‘Checkatrade Trophy’ kicked off, but with varying degrees of success.
After the EFL announced that, unlike in previous seasons as the Johnstones Paint Trophy where each round would be on a knockout basis, there would be a group of four teams, including one from a Premier League academy side, fans across the country voiced their concerns, and many protested with the threat of a boycott of all the games.
Ultimately, it comes down to the EFL wanting to add a League Three by 2020, which again will include Premier League academy sides.
The aim is to introduce younger English players into the football system, playing competitively as opposed to reserve team games, but at a number of games in the week, many featured the likes of 30 year old Stoke City midfielder Charlie Adam, whilst Wycombe Wanderers and Exeter City named their managers, Gareth Ainsworth and Paul Tisdale, on the bench, with both being the wrong side of 40.
With a mass boycott across the country expected, both Bolton and Millwall reduced ticket prices to just £5, whilst Oldham allowed free entry for under 16’s. Also, Charlton gave out free programmes for their match, whilst Mansfield even handed out free beer tokens in an attempt to draw in the crowds. Unfortunately for these clubs, and many more, their efforts were to no avail.
Last season, the average attendance for a first round match was 1,870, whilst this year with the new format, the average crowd was 20% lower at 1,462. But the attendances, which you can see in full at the end of this article, certainly didn’t tell the whole story of the actual number of fans that were in attendance.
Across the country, there were seven games which plummeted below 1,000, but with fans taking photos, you can almost count the number, or lack thereof, of supporters inside the stadiums. Many believe that some fans purchased tickets so that the club would still receive the money, despite boycotting the game anyway, whilst it is also believed that many sponsors were given free tickets to the games without them being in attendance. Whatever the outcome, “Matchday One” was a farce up and down the country.
The lowest attendance was that at League One side Fleetwood, where just 392 fans attended their fixture against Lancashire rivals Blackburn (Under 23’s). AFC Wimbledon had a low of 461 fans at Kingsmeadow with their tie against Swansea (Under 23’s), whilst Accrington Stanley had a mere 585 fans for their visit of Crewe – All three home sides boasted attendances of over 1,000 at this stage last season, as was the case for every other club that featured in the JPT last season.
Port Vale broke a club record: their 1,198 attendance was their lowest in a competitive game for thirty years, whilst Scunthorpe, a side that have recorded attendances of 1,796 against Barnsley, 2,004 against Chesterfield and 2,352 against Sheffield United in previous opening round games at home in this competition, had just 1,200 in attendance for their match against Middlesbrough (Under 23’s).
The largest attendance of the Week came at Bramall Lane where 3,632 fans turned out to watch Sheffield United against Leicester City (Under 23’s). Ok, so that’s not a bad attendance considering, but when you take into account that the Blades most recent attendance (a 2-1 home victory over Oxford United in League One) was just under 20,000, its still a dismal effort, particularly when playing a Premier League champions, in some form.
That game ended goalless, with Leicester (Under 23’s) winning in penalties after 90 minutes to give them a ‘bonus’ point as the EFL have rearranged the points system along with the structure.
Another ‘ruling’ was that of; “Each EFL Club shall play its full available strength in and during all Matches. The League will from time to time issue a policy as to what constitutes ‘full available strength’. Any Club failing to meet this requirement will be required to pay a fine of up to £5,000.” Portsmouth manager Paul Cook made 11 changes for his teams match, but the fans subsequently paid his fine so that the clubs first team players wouldn’t be at risk of injuries ahead of an important season in League Two.
In an open letter to fans taking part in the boycott, the Against League 3 Campaign said: “Asking supporters to boycott is a decision that we took with a heavy heart. No-one wants to deliberately avoid going to watch their team. It’s a horrible feeling. Boycotting doesn’t make you any less loyal or any less of a true supporter. Boycotting means you reject the idea that our teams should become just another tool for the Premier League youth development conveyor belt. Boycotting means you are willing to stand up and be counted to try and improve football for all levels – not for just the select few.”
The idea of the introduction of Premier League academy sides was to boost the prospects of young English players in competivive matches. A good idea in some respects, but as I mentioned earlier, Charlie Adam, 30 years old and capped 26 times by Scotland, featured as Stoke City (Under 23’s), whilst Wycombe manager Gareth Ainsworth, a 43 year old that hasn’t played for over three years, came on with five minutes remaining of their fixture.
Worse still, French born Tony Andreu netted a hattrick for Norwich (Under 23’s), whilst 29 year old Yohan Benalouane, a Tunisian player that has earned one France Under 21 cap playing for Leicester despite being loaned out to Fiorentina since January, also featured among the “revamp of football and emergence of young English talent.”
If, as now expected, attendances continue to stay low throughout the duration of the tournament, it could be the strong showing from supporters to the EFL that many believe this proposed structure to the game is a wrong choice entirely.