Date: 20th December 2016 at 11:01pm
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As we edge nearer Christmas Day and copious amounts of presents for the lucky ones, the EFL Trophy experiment this year for real football fans becomes even more of a ‘present’ than the Football League could ever have imagined when they thought the best way to reinvigorate a competition that most League One and Two clubs saw as a genuine route to Wembley for their fans (and financial benefits) but also viewed it, because of the laws of the competition, as a ‘challenge’, was to incorporate Under 23 Premier League sides and make the journey that bit tougher.

Of course the justification was the Premier League involvement would give a nice £1million bonus as a prizefund for the competition because Johnstones Paint ended their 10 year association with the competition and they didn’t have a sponsor at the time.

The first problem was most of the Premier League clubs declined the invitation because planning meant they already had their Under squad calendars full, so the invite was extended to fellow Category One clubs in the Championship to make the plan happen.

The Football League, or the now English Football League (EFL) (Cardiff City and Swansea City anybody?) then went and got themselves a sponsor in the shape of Checkatrade.

That wasn’t the only strange thing about the development of the competition this year either. It began as a new Under 23 invite but every member of the press since criticism rained down on the competition now calls it an Under 21 invite when it comes to Category One involvement.

This is curious because Category One sides in the Premier League and Championship don’t have Under 21 sides anymore. They compete in the Under 23 Premier League 2 competition, the Under 23 Premier League Cup and those lucky enough compete in the Under 23 Premier League International Cup – yet the EFL Cup using the same players largely, the same coaches and so on are now – months on – presented as Under 21.

But in an attempt to save face given League One and Two sides have seen the total bastardisation of the initial idea – which was to give homegrown youngsters from Category One clubs true first team competition – subverted by having 30 year old internationals taking part, I suppose we can all understand why Under 23 sounds a little odd and Under 21 sounds better to those taking in the money and probably for those not paying much attention.

I digress and I shall link to various Vital sites (published on all relevant) because this is not the first time I’ve commented on the absolute joke that this has become, and the frustration is it could’ve been very beneficial to Category One clubs involved, as well as League One and Two clubs who could’ve continued to consider this their true chance of Wembley action.

Click Here – if you don’t even know what clubs want to be involved?
Click Here – homegrown boost unless you’re Luton?
Click Here – is the spirit being respected?
Click Here – fines levied for respecting the spirit.

The above pieces for those who want to read them, if they haven’t already, show clearly that the EFL Trophy project this year has nothing to do with developing homegrown talent in a real sense, it’s all about taking the Premier League cash as a bonus and helping Premier League clubs cement their own position but giving their youngsters a leg up competitively and on an experience front without Category One clubs having to take the risk of including them in their own match day squads should they choose to not loan them out.

The fact the plan went wrong and Championship clubs had to be included probably irritates those who came up with the idea, but credit where it’s due to those Under 23 (not Under 21) sides who respected the ethos of the invite they were given and played or continue to play Under 23 players for the challenge it presents them.

Sides who have featured 30 year olds and internationals should be ashamed of themselves (irrespective of whether they are complying with the rules) because they are a further reason why attendances for the competition have plummeted and fan anger over the entire competition is now at a record high.

But again I digress.

League One and Two clubs have been fined for fielding sides that don’t comply with the rules of the competition and we all know the Trophy nonsense involves sides fielding five players who started the previous game or will the following game or five with the most appearances that season.

Nostradamus with a spreadsheet would struggle with that computation – injury, tiredness anyone?

But Category One clubs can field four players over the Under 23 (not Under 21) age bracket and the four players they feature can be solid first team internationals….great planning EFL whilst you took the Premier League cash.

Having been hit heavily by this Luton Town’s chief executive Gary Sweet has rightly decided to come out fighting. Their manager Nathan Jones has already seen his young selection embarrass Category One club sides and he made his thoughts more than clear on the punishment previously.

‘If anyone wants to fine us for that group of youngsters, I’ll pay the fine myself, because it would be an absolute disgrace. Premier League sides are allowed to develop their youngsters. I’m telling you, ours are better. Why can’t we play ours? Anyone who’s involved – the EFL, Checkatrade, the FA – who wants to fine us, watch the game because you lot could be recognising these Luton youngsters sooner than you think.’

With Luton being one of the sides fined the maximum for honouring the spirit of the competition and playing youngsters to give them experience, Sweet questioned why the Football League (I refuse to continue to call them the EFL like they think they’re a protest party) are further confusing the issue with the introduction of the Futures programme.

For those who don’t know, the programme is worth £750,000 per season and it rewards clubs every time they play an England player under 21 (or Welsh U21 for Welsh clubs) in a league game.

Describing the cross incentives when 12 clubs in total were fined for fielding weakened sides because they included youngsters that would in fact gain funding via the Futures project, Sweet said it was simply ‘bizarre’.

‘Clubs are rewarded for fielding young talent in one EFL competition but are punished for doing exactly the same in another.’

Luton of course were levied with a £15,000 fine following the group stage of the competition, but had Jones picked the same squad in the preceding league games Luton would’ve actually gained £6,900 according to the BBC.

‘EFL clubs are confused to say the least. There is an utter lack of joined-up thinking; completely devoid of any strategic framework. We were fined £15,000 for fielding young players yet those very statistics were included in the EFL’s PR to promote the benefits of the EFL Trophy. Furthermore, for doing exactly the same thing in the league we’ve been lauded as an example for being bold enough to play our youngsters. It simply doesn’t make sense.’

EFL chief executive Shaun Harvey argued that the restrictions on League One and Two clubs was to make sure their sides were of ‘sufficient strength’ to ‘address the principle’ of younger players getting competitive action.

In other words Mr Harvey…League One and Two clubs play their seniors so Category One youngsters benefit…yeah?

‘I don’t think there is a mixed message. What there is, is two initiatives being run together with slightly different objectives that do not marry perfectly together. But they were never intended to.’

Never intended to, clearly, to begin with it was Premier League youngsters get the advantage at the expense of League One and Two clubs having a better route to Wembley. Due to their own planning failures in organisation, it then needed to include Championship youngsters to achieve the same aim – but throughout League One and Two youngsters getting valuable action and complying with the spirit of the tournament see themselves fined?

The irony being, how many Category One clubs failed to get through the opening Group stage – Everton finished third, Stoke City fourth, Blackburn Rovers fourth, Derby County fourth, Middlesbrough fourth, Chelsea fourth, West Ham third, West Bromwich Albion fourth.

The clubs fined for not complying with the selection rules were Luton Town (3rd round), Portsmouth (3rd group), Bradford City (3rd round), Blackpool (3rd round), Bristol Rovers (4th group), MK Dons (2nd round), Millwall (2nd round), Charlton (3rd group), Peterborough United (3rd group), Sheffield United (3rd group), Southend United (2nd round) and Fleetwood Town (3rd group).

Out of the 16 Category One clubs invited, seven made it through the group stage in first or second spot, and as club’s build towards the New Year’s third round stage only five remain – but with a couple of second round ties still to be staged only three Under 23 sides are guaranteed to be in action.

Rather than being fined and punished I’d have thought the Football League would want to reward their clubs for their performances, as few Under 23 sides who regularly utilised the maximum number of first team members actually saw themselves progress – granted there were exceptions but fans who have been following the competition will know the names regularly in action for some sides and they have been outclassed on many occasions.

For the development of youngsters – wasn’t that supposed to be the entire point of the trial or was the plan not to see League One and Two youngsters shine at the expense of the prizefund contributors?