This season, the Football League have revamped the format of the formally known Johnstones Paint Trophy with the inclusion of Premier League Academy teams. Admittedly, the competition, which previously only included sides from League’s One and Two, has never been a huge hit with supporters, with many claiming that it clogged up the fixture list for what was a relatively uninteresting cup.
So you could argue that a change to the format would be positive. Unfortunately for the Football League, it has had a catastrophic effect on those same supporters, with major boycotts taking place up and down the country.
The short term plan for the long term change was to introduce a new League Three, which would include Premier League Academy sides. This is believed to be the main reason for mass boycotts across the country for this seasons ‘Checkatrade Trophy’ matches.
Football League Chief Executive, Shaun Harvey, rang wholesale changes to the competition, beginning by increasing the number of sides in the competition from 48 to 64, including sixteen Premier League Academy teams. Already, fans of the lower league clubs expressed their dissatisfaction about the inclusion of the top flights involvement, with many top clubs, including Manchester United and Liverpool amongst others, opting not to participate in the competition.
From there, it got worse. Rather than the competition being a knock out in each round, as is the case in every other cup competition in England, the EFL decided to create regional groups of four, including one academy side, with the top two progressing to the knockout stages. One of this seasons finalists, Oxford United, were faced with rivals Swindon Town, in addition to Exeter City of League Two and Chelsea’s academy side.
Throughout the group stages, attendances were at an all time low across the country, with a considerable number of attendances falling into the hundreds rather than the thousands. Even the derby game between Oxford and Swindon at the County Ground was an all time low for the fixture, despite 2,698 supporters attending.
This article isn’t just about the competition itself, but as a fan of the above mentioned Oxford United myself, this is about the tale of two seasons in this tournament.
Last season, the U’s, who were then a League Two side, made it to Wembley, losing to League One opponents Barnsley in the final. Michael Appleton’s side played five games before reaching their Wembley showdown. With a bye in the first round, the U’s overcame fierce rivals Swindon in the second round, courtesy of a brace from Kemar Roofe, in front of just under 10,000 supporters at the Kassam Stadium, four times more than this season when the sides met at the County Ground.
Another 2-0 win, this time at Dagenham in the area quarter final, was followed by a 3-2 home win over Yeovil Town in the area semi final.
The area final was contested over two legs, with another brace from Roofe giving the U’s a 2-0 advantage with a win at League One side Millwall, and despite losing the second leg at home, Oxford progressed to Wembley.
This season however has been a stark contrast. Just one home game, a 4-2 victory over Exeter, in the group games was followed with a goalless draw at Swindon and a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea Academy. Both games were lost in another new feature, a bonus point for a penalty shootout win, which quite frankly is almost as insane as the format itself!
The first knockout round saw the U’s overcome Southend at Roots Hall after a penalty shootout following a 1-1 draw, before back to back home games (a 4-1 win over League One leaders Scunthorpe and a 2-1 victory over fellow League One high-flyers Bradford) secured a semi final clash at Luton. Despite leading 2-0, the Hatters pulled it back level, before the visitors won it late on to secure their final appearance.
There are a few differences between the two seasons. As mentioned, Oxford played five times before they featured at Wembley last season, with seven games taking place this season to reach the final. Not only the added fixtures, but the attendances, as across the country, also dipped. Of the three home games last season, the U’s average attendance against Swindon, Yeovil and Millwall was 7,228, whereas this season in their home games against Exeter, Scunthorpe and Bradford, the average attendance has been 1,744, more than four times less than their previous campaign.
And then we get to the final. 59,230 fans made the trip to Wembley, including over 30,000 from Oxford. This season, given the recent rise and success of the club under manager Appleton and chairman Darryl Eales, the U’s could quite easily take 40,000 to the home of English football, but unfortunately this won’t be the case.
The boycott, backed by many, has divided fans across the country, and as an Oxford fan, I have now seen first hand how its dividing our own sets of fans. Many have boycotted the competition from the start, and rightly so, whilst a minority have been to most games. But there remain some supporters than still sit on the fence. The proposition of a boycott against Premier League Academy teams has been successful, but the argument now is that the match itself is between two League One sides, and of course another opportunity to see the Yellow and Blue army at Wembley.