Out-of-his-depth Shaun Harvey, CEO of the EFL, had indicated that his much heralded re-vamp of what was the JP Trophy has not worked, and that the new format under the name of the Checkatrade Trophy may be scrapped. However, the week ahead of the final, he has been espousing the benefits, including the involvement of B Teams. He is wrong. It has failed.
Its failure will come as no surprise to anyone who understands football, and in particular understands football fans, but to the apparently incompetent Mr Harvey, it is probably a massive shock. Mr Harvey will believe the whole competition is at fault, and will blithely ignore the real reasons why fans didn’t support it and why clubs treated it with contempt. (Read my thoughts as to why I believed it would fail https://facupfactfile.wordpress.com/2016/07/29/like-turkeys-voting-for-christmas/ )
There are three actions I’d propose to create a Checkatrade Trophy that both the fans and the clubs will want to positively compete in, and it doesn’t require the usual approach of bribing clubs with increased prize money.
Recommendation No. 1 Revert the competition back to being just for EFL 1 and EFL 2 Clubs
In other words, remove the ill-judged, money-focused inclusion of Premier League and Championship ‘B’ Teams. An obvious no-brainer but for Mr Harvey’s sake, I’ll spell it out. This is the reason the competition has failed from a fans’ perspective. Many others better placed than me can explain why, but ultimately it is insulting to member EFL clubs and their fans to have their first teams facing reserve teams of the latest higher level clubs in EFL sanctioned competitive matches. Additionally, the EFL should use this competition to encourage clubs to blood young talent, thereby encapsulating the benefits detailed in the EFL Futures proposal recently announced.
Recommendation No. 2 Make sure all games have relevance
The introduction of a group stage wasn’t an issue per se. Without the B teams it could have worked, but the approach needs to be amended so that every game played has something riding on it. The 48 EFL 1 & EFL 2 clubs should be drawn into 16 groups of three teams with every club in each group due to play each other just once, with the winners only progressing to the knock-out stages. Only when the first two clubs have met should it be determined which two clubs face each other in the second and third games.
To illustrate, there are three teams in each group: Teams A, B and C. Suppose Team A meet Team B first. The second match will then be between Team C and whoever loses the first match (if the first match is a draw it is irrelevant whether it is Team A or B). Then the final match will be between Team C and the other remaining side. This approach guarantees that at least one club will have something to play for in every game, and will end the situation of there being a dead rubber in the final match.
Sceptics may suggest there will be scheduling issues with Team C not knowing their first opponents, but this is not really that different to a standard knock-out competition when clubs don’t know if they will have to play a cup game or a league game on a future date until the current round of Cup matches is resolved. With enough gap between games, this is easily manageable.
Recommendation No. 3 Ensure all Group matches involve the three closest clubs
The regionalisation element of this season’s Checkatrade Trophy was farcical, and this can better be managed by just allocating clubs to each group based upon proximity. This may mean season after season the same three clubs face each other in the group stages, particularly those on the extremes of the country, but actually a positive feature could be made of this fact, something of the ilk of the Calcutta Cup in rugby union, whereby a second trophy could be awarded for each group winners who would be crowned ‘regional champions’.
This regional approach, coupled with a recognised prize for best club in the region, will add extra spice to group games, enhance local rivalries and give all group matches extra fan appeal. Regionalisation should then continue as best as possible for at least the first round of the knock-out stages.
There is no need to scrap the Checkatrade Trophy just because of an ill-conceived approach of kowtowing to Premier League demands meant it has ‘failed’ this season. If the EFL apply my three recommendations stated above it would bring new life back into the competition and give both the fans and the clubs involved something worth playing for.