Founded in 1984, the Papa John’s Trophy (more commonly known as the EFL Trophy) has been open to all 48 clubs of League One and League Two since its inception. The format offers lower league clubs a chance of silverware in a competition that excludes the countries’ elite.
Up until 2016, the competition steadily grew keeping within its original format. Some mocked the competition and its apparent uselessness but nonetheless it provided a cup competition for fans of lower league clubs to get excited about. This was until the format itself was ripped and relayed in a completely different fashion.
The first substantial change was to the format it took. Previously, the competition was a straight knockout tournament much like the FA Cup and the League Cup. However, the introduction of a group stage added even more fixtures into an already packed schedule for EFL teams. Given the budget that some of these teams run on, it is no surprise that the competition is ignored completely as most teams do not have the depth at this level to play three knockout tournaments on top of a league schedule that includes 46 games. The erroneous calculation to add this group stage was evidently careless, nonetheless, further rule implementations cemented the competitions stature as nothing but a complete joke.
The most influential change within the competition is the introduction of 16 category one academies. This was in response to a call for more importance to be placed on the growth of young English talent in the football pyramid. The intended purpose of this proposal was to give young English players the opportunity to face football league opposition and experience in the game within the pyramid. This one change is possibly the most damning for the competition.
With the introduction of these academy teams, fans of lower league clubs were essentially told that these 'B' teams took precedence ahead of the actual clubs further down the pyramid. On top of the ridiculous addition of these academies was the completely insane line-up's some teams put out. Premier League proven players such as Charlie Adam and Bojan Krkic were getting game time in a competition designed to promote 'development’. A real kick in the teeth for fans for sure, and yet this is not even the worst consequence of this inane addition.
Upon the realisation that the latest changes to the EFL Trophy’s format was nothing more than a thin veiled push to add premier League academies to the English football pyramid, more teams played weaker squads showing their lack of interest in the competition. One of the more notable occasions was Wycombe Wanderers manager Gareth Ainsworth naming himself on the bench for a group stage fixture a full 3 years after he had retired from playing. The reaction from the EFL was to implement a fine of up to £5000 for teams not playing their full available and strength squad in and during all fixtures.
Not only were teams given even more games within a hectic fixture schedule, but they were also subject to a fine if they did not take the competition seriously. Absolutely baffling is an understatement when it comes to the decision that someone has made to further the embarrassment that the tournament already is.
It is clear that the organisers behind the EFL Trophy are aware of its shortcomings and have therefore introduced disproportionate prize money. Should a team go all the way, they could win up to £260,000, however, the fixture pileup would require a sufficient sacrifice in the league, possibly even forgoing the chances of promotion. A sacrifice few teams would be willing to make.
As a fan of a struggling League One side, it is hard to gain the perspective of other fans towards the competition. Therefore, I spoke with Jude, a Sheffield Wednesday fan to gauge his thoughts on the EFL Trophy. He said “it's a non-event for me... the introduction of the academies really killed the competition, and it feels a little patronising watching experienced pros for good teams lining up against kids backed by an away following of their parents and friends.” Gather perspective, Jude also recognised the success and enjoyment it has brought other teams at that level “I am sure there are other supporters who really enjoy the competition, locally Barnsley, Rotherham and Chesterfield have all had recent success in the EFL Trophy and speak highly of their glory at Wembley.” Jude ultimately described the affair as “a bit of fun at times but doesn’t really mean all that much.”
That is the most recent history of a once semi-respected competition for lower league teams. A tournament so self-aware of its own shortcomings that it fines teams not taking it seriously enough and has had to tempt team away from potential league success to help ‘improve’ Premier League academies instead of offering a success story and a chance of a trophy for teams struggling at the bottom of the English footballing pyramid. A competition so derisory in its stature that clubs report attendances decreases between 20% and 60% from regular league match days.