George Young pens our latest diary offering, discussing the problems with the EFL Trophy as it begins to unravel before a ball has been kicked.
The decision of the Football League to relaunch their laughably rebranded “EPL Trophy” with the inclusion of Premier League B Teams has been unravelling over the last weeks. The original announcement was met with derision from the vast majority of supporters: it is hard to unite fans but this has brought them together like nothing else since Wimbledon’s owners were allowed to create Franchise FC.
Immediately, the boards of fan-owned clubs such as Pompey and AFC Wimbledon announced that they had voted against the decision. A few other clubs, such as Hartlepool, Accrington and, perhaps surprisingly, Charlton followed suit. Questions were asked of our board and a few days later the club admitted that, shamefully, it had voted in favour.
Chief executive Jim Rodwell tried to justify the club’s vote by saying “if you don’t try something new how do you expect innovation? I’m quite excited about it – we at Scunthorpe United voted for it on the basis that it’s a one-year pilot and we’ll go from there”. Weasel words which smack of knowing better than the fans, the club’s customers, which is at best a curious approach to market research. Hopefully, empty stadia in next season’s competition will provide conclusive feedback.
Within a couple of weeks, however, the goalposts are already shifting. Most of the major Premier League teams have announced their withdrawal from the competition. Anyone who might at least have hoped for a cheaper day out at Old Trafford, the Emirates or White Hart Lane will have to pay full whack for a Premier League ticket. Liverpool are reported to be unwilling to make Anfield available for EPL Trophy games, a condition of entry for the top-flight sides.
So we have a competition that Football League fans want nothing to do with, viewing it as a Trojan Horse for the introduction of the infamous “League Three”. The Premier League on the other hand seem no less in love with the concept, happy to offer £1 million in extra prize money but with many of their members not interested in taking part. Are they worried about their promising youngsters being kicked up in the air by Jack King? Yet most of those youngsters will be sent out on loan this summer to clubs at all levels of the Football League, continuing the recent trend of weakening those clubs by hoovering up the talent at a young age and then asking the same clubs to help develop those players during loan spells. To me, it feels like the Premier League wanted to open the door to B Teams by using the EPL Trophy to establish the principle. £1 million was small change to establish the principle.
Yet why did the Football League agree so readily? The threshold for the vote to pass was reportedly reduced to around a 2/3rd majority. Why did this happen? Since 1992, the Football League has bent over backwards to allow the Premier League to get their way: the introduction of the EPPP set-up was voted through in return for a few extra quid in so-called solidarity payments. It is hard to see what the League is trying to achieve by rolling over and having its tummy tickled so readily by the big boys. When ITV Digital collapsed, many clubs found themselves short but the introduction of FFP rules and voluntary wage caps has had a positive impact: it’s now several years since a League club has called in the administrators, so surely the League isn’t as desperate for cash as it might have been a few years ago.
The advertising slogan for the Football League is “real football for real people”, whatever that means. If they really believe their marketing, then perhaps it is time for them to start listening to what fans actually want and to try to offer a genuine alternative to the excesses of the Premier League. After all, it’s never going to be able to compete with glamour or media exposure of the top flight. People who come to watch teams like Scunny don’t do so to see the best players in the world or to be part of a major media event.
They come out of an interest for their local club, a club which they want to be able to connect with in a way you never could with Manchester City. One option lies in the brewing industry where the explosion of micro-breweries has come from a deliberate strategy to offer an alternative to the mainstream multinational brewers: more taste, local ingredients, imaginative marketing. It’s a template which could have been made for the Football League.
Sadly, the desire to create an ersatz Premier League Lite seems to be winning out at the minute, with everything focussed on the short-term bottom line. It is a strategy which has made parts of English football wealthy beyond imagination yet at the same time has left the national side in tatters and could be on course to permanently undermine the incredibly depth of professional football which makes the game in England so special.
United take on Middlesborough at Glanford Park this evening and the game is covered by most sports betting apps.