Starting on the 29th August, the EFL Trophy sees what once was the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy enter a new era, and for the first time allows Category One Academy teams to enter.
The format has been revamped and the competition founded in 1983 will be transformed into a knock-out tournament, featuring 64 clubs divided into 16 groups of 4 teams. But like the former Johnstone’s Paint Trophy format, the teams are divided into Northern and Southern groups in an attempt to minimize disruption for the various teams’ domestic timetables.
Of the 64 clubs taking part, 48 of those will be clubs from League One and Two, with the remaining 16 being Category One Academy Teams – one of those being Chelsea. However, a large amount of the Premier League’s top Academy sides have rejected this proposal, seeing both the Manchester sides, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool deciding not to take part in the inaugural competition.
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These rejections may have been because the fixtures take place during international break in order to minimize scheduling issues. Therefore with the bigger clubs supplying a large amount of international players, a vast proportion of their academy players would be away on international duty.
However, rejection has not only come from Premier League teams as fans of League One & Two sides feel that football is becoming more Premier League centred each year that passes. The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy was once a chance for the smaller sides, such as Crewe Alexandra, Chesterfield and Oxford United to play on the hallowed turf at Wembley, but now it could just be a training pitch for Premier League youngsters.
It also gives smaller sides a platform to gain silverware and attempt to rise up the English football pyramid, something which now Premier League side Southampton took advantage of during the 2009/10 season during their rise to the top of English football.
Category One academy teams, like Chelsea, will be obliged to start at least 6 under-21 players in their starting XI, but the remaining players can be of any age. This would mean that players perhaps coming back from injury or those not featuring the first team could theoretically take part in the competition, which unsurprisingly has caused a vast amount of controversy.
If Premier League teams decide to take advantage of this and field first team players then it would not be a surprise to see Chelsea Under-21s line up in the final at Wembley on the 2nd April 2017.
This change in format of the EFL Cup has undoubtedly been made in a move to increase the amount of home grown players making their way into first team sides, hopefully increasing the amount of English players playing at the top level – something which has been heavily declining recently.
The draw sees Chelsea take part in Southern Group C, alongside League One sides Oxford United and Swindon Town, alongside League Two side Exeter City. Looking at the development of our youth players, this will undoubtedly be good for their development.
It will see the under-21 players no longer only being able to play against their age group as they can now play against professional football league sides, which will expose them to the tougher and more physical style of the Football League.
It could also be a chance for the Under-21 players to prove themselves in English football, whilst not having to join the now substantial amount of players shipped out on loan around Europe each summer. For example, players like Tammy Abraham who has been linked to Bristol City and affiliate Vitesse Arnhem could instead play a leading role in the EFL Trophy campaign.
It is yet unclear as to whether tickets for these fixtures would be for sale to fans, and whether the game would take place at Stamford Bridge or the Cobham training complex. However, demand for these tickets may be low, and I have my doubts about whether fans would pay a fee to see Chelsea Under-21s face off against a League Two side.
But unlike the lower league clubs, Chelsea could afford to miss out on ticket revenue for these games, whereas less fortunate clubs in Leagues One and Two rely heavily on ticket revenue and would miss out on this with fans not likely to attend a game against an Under-21 side.
Fortunately for these clubs, the EFL has decided to make it obligatory for invited academy sides to donate all or a share of their gate receipts to a fund, shared equally by League One and Two sides.
Overall, it must be understood that this is only a trial year and if the format is not a success, it could revert to its previous format. But for Chelsea, it should be a positive and greatly increase exposure to professional football for the Under-21 players, and hopefully see more break into the starting XI in the coming seasons.