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Published on September 7th, 2018 | by Bill

B roads point to a dead end: Three more years of Premier League B teams in the Checkatrade Trophy.

Three more years of the Checkatrade Trophy, the Football League competition junked up with Premier League B teams. Three more years of the B Team boycott by downcast fans who are still smart enough to be having none of it.

Written for STAND, by Tom Reed

The news that the EFL are preparing to extend the Checkatrade Trophy for in its present format for a further three years came in a Matt Barlow piece for the Mail Online, full of stats with little weight, in the rankling style that has summed up the competition since Premier League B-Teams pitched up for the 2016/17 season. Except the insults don’t appear to be disguised any more and supporters are trapped in the front row of the EFL comedy club, perpetually taunted.

The tenuous benefits of B-Team involvement involvement in the Checkatrade Trophy in relation to the England team are still being trotted out and swiftly dismissed.

Barlow points to numbers which suggest 118 players from B-Teams in the competition were English and under-21 years old last season. Yet, research from the excellent Ugly Game blog by Martin Calladine points to the average B-Team English player under 21 starting just 2.5 matches last term in the Checkatrade. Two and a half matches in front of one man and his dog in boycotted stadia is supposed to be sufficient exposure to men’s football for the superlative English youth hoarded by the richest clubs? The maximum number of matches in the Checkatrade trophy is 8 compared to a full season in the Premier League, no wonder they are increasingly on the first flight to Dortmund.

Indeed, Manchester City fielded just 3 out of 11 English players in their Checkatrade Trophy opener against Shrewsbury Town. The same paltry number as they did in their first Premier League outing of the season.

England manager Gareth Southgate has done himself no favours by being drawn into praising B-Team involvement as a pathway to develop young English talent.  At a time he might be using the World Cup cup and Brexit as capital in demanding Premier League teams actually field top domestic talent he is thanking the EFL for “thinking creatively” on solving the “significant problem of opportunities for young players”.  Meanwhile, lower league clubs field what fresh meat hasn’t been picked off under the Elite Player Performance Plan otherwise known by what Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish infamously called “letting lions into a petting zoo”.

Barlow states that attendances are up, which they may be in total due to an increased number of matches in the new format (49 fixtures 2015/16 versus 126 fixtures 2017/18). However, Ugly Game’s findings show that average gates per game were roughly half what they were in the two years after B-Teams entered than the season preceding their entry. Ugly Game calculated that, at the current rate of growth, it will take until the 2026/27 for average attendances in the Checkatrade to exceed their pre-B-Team level.

Some lower league supporters haven’t entered their home grounds on Checkatrade Trophy nights for a good two years and a three year extension of B team involvement will take the boycott to five years. Half a decade of staying away from beloved clubs by dedicated fans, desperate to see proper homegrown players succeed. Not to mention the schism between fans and clubs, with chairmen voting as a majority to continue B team involvement and the cash windfall that comes with it at the EFL summer conference despite boycotter protestations and far too many empty seats.

Weary EFL Chief Executive Shaun Harvey took to Twitter to state that the “Checkatrade Trophy is not a way of trying to introduce B Teams into the EFL” addressing the “thin end of the wedge” fears of fans.

However, this further enraged supporters as Harvey ignored the sophisticated critiques of B teams as a whole with the potential encroachment of Premier League second teams into league football a side-concern.

At a time when the football industry is becoming increasingly fan-focused the EFL continue with a thoroughly un-modern approach to the Checkatrade Trophy and supporters in general. The introduction of B-Teams as a solution to low attendances was an acceptance of Football League failure to organise a tournament in a way which appealed to fans. The Scottish Challenge Cup has invited Boreham Wood and Sutton United from the English Conference into their competition. Of course the SCC also included B teams which are a non-starter but if the EFL could start to think of ways to embolden a Football League competition without becoming more reliant on top tier cash then fans may begin to come back.

16 Checkatrade Trophy matches out of 22 on Tuesday night drew gates of fewer than 1600, 5 had fewer than 1000 fans. If Harvey is truly concerned about income streams for his member clubs he needs to focus on EFL clubs retaining and growing their own young players and being properly compensated should they leave as adults.

It may take the misery of a half-decade walk-out but, eventually, the EFL will see that B-Teams are a no-go full-stop and bring fans to the table regarding the various other options, sans Premier League, in organising a simple, sadly mismanaged, competition.

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