The verdict on this week’s Checkatrade Trophy fans’ forum came about an hour and a half in, although it had been clear from the very start.
“Of course it’s a PR event” said the pale, awkward EFL chief-executive Shaun Harvey in his checked shirt and blazer combo, looking like a farmers’ leader trying to explain a foot-and-mouth outbreak, except this was more foot in mouth.
Harvey had been skewered by a Port Vale fan who explained that Football Supporters’ Federation reps had stayed away from the meeting fearing a “PR exercise”, much like fans have swerved Harvey’s disaster of a competition.
The sparsely attended fans’ event played out with an empty Wembley as a background, symbolic of the desolate stadia at Checkatrade Trophy matches since fans were prompted to boycott due to the inclusion of Premier League B teams in 2016-17
Valiant Malcolm Hirst, National Council member of the new Unified Football Supporters’ Association, spoke about a drop in Vale Park attendances for Checkatrade matches from pre-B team crowds of 2,500-2,700 in 2015 to a record low gate of 554 against Middlesbrough B after the despised changes were made.
Research from the Ugly Game blog on Twitter has found that Round 1 Checkatrade Trophy gates sit at 70% of what they had been before B team involvement. Sub-1,000 attendances have gone up by 39%.
In the last year before B Teams were introduced to the @CheckatradeTrpy, there wasn't a single round one game with fewer than 1,000 fans.
This year, 46% of Rd1 games had fewer than 1,000 fans and 9% had fewer than 500 – which accounts for the record-setting lows we've seen. pic.twitter.com/ixNFr09zVD
— theuglygame (@uglygame) November 16, 2018
Hirst said the drop in gates were “partly because the change in the competition has been driven down rather than allowing the fans to engage and to say what kind of competition we are willing or would like to support”.
First to counter Hirst in the meeting wasn’t Harvey but guest speaker Ian Holloway, about as relevant to modern football as Fatty Foulke and as contradictory in his views as the Fast Show’s “Indecisive Dave”.
“Harry Kane was loaned out and loaned out” bristled Holloway in his Bristol burr, contradicting the tenuous benefits of Checkatrade matches and emboldening the line that first-team minutes at EFL clubs are more beneficial. Perhaps he’d been riled by fellow guest Colin Murray who praised Harvey for bringing the rent-a-gob in from the cold and “helping with unemployment in Britain”.
“So called development category 1 things (sic) is the best for them,” said Holloway. “Well it’s not I think, it’s playing for a club and playing real matches. At first I was against it but now I’ve seen it running I think it’s a brilliant format” he added, managing to both undermine and praise the Checkatrade while quoting another Fast Show character. Brilliant.
Of course, no-one tackled the elephant in the room: the Elite Player Performance Plan, a joint operation of the Premier League and Football Association which allows rich clubs access to the top youth talent without proper provision to play them in first teams. Nor the issue of what happens when a youth prospect, taken from an EFL club for a capped fee, actually lines up against them for a B-team and denies them a trip to Wembley.
Worse still was bespectacled Harvey’s myopic assertions of the financial benefit of the competition with the possibility of successful Checkatrade Trophy sides banking “two-and-a-half million pounds”. “A lot of our clubs sell players to exist” said Harvey with brass neck and trademark self-awareness, ignoring the potential transfer fees lost for top EFL youth prospects prematurely plucked from the tree by rich clubs. The Checkatrade prize money is scant compensation.
MK Dons received £5m from Spurs for Dele Alli, £10m went from Everton to Charlton for Ademola Lookman, Nick Powell headed to Manchester United from Crewe for £6m. These are the sort of club-changing prices for promising English youth products that are being sidestepped at present by predatory teenage transfers under EPPP.
Up popped confused Checkatrade fanboy Holloway to moan about how Scott Sinclair was grabbed from his Bristol Rovers side by Chelsea for a “pittance”. “It drove me mad” he ranted. Go figure.
The FA’s post-Brexit quota plans might mean that young English players come with more of a premium, meaning that Football League clubs face losing out even further on transfer fees via EPPP. Then there’s the double ignominy of accepting B-teams into their own competition to take on the responsibility of blooding English talent that the Premier League has shirked. No wonder supporters are up in arms; they aren’t thick.
Back to the fans’ forum, where there were plenty of EFL guests gushing about a Wembley final and other features that existed before B-teams when the competition was sponsored by Johnstone’s Paint. A healthy 59,230 were at the national stadium to watch Barnsley take on Oxford in 2016 when JPT ribbons still adorned the Trophy and B-teams were nothing.
Holloway talked up the tight regionalisation of the current format and other positive changes that the Football League somehow couldn’t manage before Premier League involvement. The 2011-12 JPT first-round draw saw such (non) local ties as Northampton v Huddersfield and Bournemouth v Hereford, begging the question of whether the Football League had lost the map as well as the plot?
The introduction of B-teams by the EFL is an admittance that Harvey is weak at his job; he doesn’t know how to market his clubs to their full potential in a standalone competition, nor how to engage properly with supporters.
Only recently, he was accused of “auditioning for a high-profile Premier League job” in an article on the threatened breakaway of top Championship clubs over TV rights.
“I went on record last year saying that I actually wanted Lincoln to beat Chelsea” said Harvey in the Checkatrade forum, like backing his own was some sort of achievement.
“We are a competition organiser that has to push boundaries” he added, except those boundaries appear to end at the gates of Premier League HQ in pushing for root-and-branch change, something that benefits all clubs, supporters and the England team.
Reform of EPPP to allow EFL clubs to keep their best young players should be Harvey’s raison d’etre, along with a loan draft for all top-level English youth prospects to get them playing first-team league football down the pyramid.
Harvey insists that B-teams in the Checkatrade is not the “thin end of the wedge” regarding Premier League shadow sides entering the pyramid, but that will come as small comfort to fans.
If you’d have asked Football League Chairmen in the 1990s if they’d vote to allow top clubs access to their best youngsters via EPPP in what Crystal Palace owner Steve Parish called “letting lions into the petting zoo”, they’d have scoffed. Yet EFL turkey owners did precisely that in 2011, basting themselves and jumping into the oven on Christmas Day after, what Parish describes as “veiled threats of money being taken” away. Now we are where we are.
Harvey mentioned that Checkatrade are to end the sponsorship of the competition after this season. Perhaps all publicity isn’t good publicity when it comes to this insult to supporters, modern governance and good sense.
The EFL have said that it will “engage the market to secure a new partner”. Best of luck to Mr Harvey in making the EFL palatable to a company with any semblance of community ethos, while continuing to force-feed fans a shit sandwich they steadfastly refuse to swallow.
Tom Reed – follow him on Twitter