Despite vastly reduced numbers going through the turnstiles for the early rounds of this season’s revamped Checkatrade Trophy, more than 72,000 tickets have been sold for the final, between Coventry City and Oxford United. Sunday’s crowd at Wembley will fall short of the record for a Football League Trophy denouement – 80,841 watched Wolves beat Burnley in 1988 – but it is a significant increase on the 59,230 supporters who attended last year’s decider, when Oxford lost a thriller 3-2 to Barnsley.
The Football League is likely to see Sunday’s attendance as vindication for its much-maligned overhaul of the tournament, which has left fans of lower-league clubs nonplussed, but there is little doubt the appearance of two League One teams in the final has done them a huge favour.
We can only speculate how many would have attended if Sunday’s decider were between two of the Premier League or Championship academy sides who took up invitations to participate in the competition, but it is probably safe to assume the prospect of two teams half-filled with under-21s going toe to toe would not have prompted a stampede to Wembley.
The Football League has said it will hold a review meeting on 11 April, with the chairman, Shaun Harvey, who championed the new format, promising “to see what changes could be made if it’s to stay like this going forward”.
In a season when relegation to League Two for their side looks almost certain, Coventry fans are expected to take up more than 40,000 tickets 30 years after their famous win against Tottenham in the 1987 FA Cup final.
Oxford will also be well represented, with their supporters’ trust, OxVox, having decided to abandon their season-long boycott of the Checkatrade Trophy to “show our pride and appreciation to the players who have represented us this season”. Oxford’s group stage match against Exeter attracted a crowd of just 1,575 people, the third lowest for a competitive football match at the Kassam Stadium.
The decision to invite the academy sides of 16 Premier League and Championship clubs to participate in the group stages of this season’s competition has been a huge bone of contention for lower league clubs, who preferred the competition’s traditional status as a knockout tournament that gave them a realistic chance to experience a rare day out at Wembley. The Football League’s rationale was that the tournament, known for the previous nine seasons as the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, was stagnating and the overhaul would enable bigger clubs to blood homegrown youngsters in meaningful games.
Critics of Harvey’s revamp have argued that the clubs in question have first teams and the loan system to give youngsters meaningful game time. “They’ve brought something different,” says Harvey of the academy sides who participated. “It started in challenging circumstances. If given the opportunity, with some review of how we gauge full-strength sides for EFL clubs, I think it’s got a future.”
Supporters beg to differ. Attendances in the early rounds were embarrassingly poor, down well over 50% on last season. Just 392 fans turned up to Highbury for Fleetwood against Blackburn, a stand-out low figure across many games in which academy sides visiting lower league grounds played in front of crowds measured in the hundreds.
Convoluted and contradictory rules regarding player eligibility have not helped either and regularly led to farcical scenes, with allegedly youthful sides – containing at least six under-21s – ending games with seasoned internationals and as many as eight players aged over 30 on the pitch, as well as managers in their mid-40s naming themselves as substitutes.
On one notorious occasion, Bradford provoked much mirth by replacing their goalkeeper Colin Doyle just three minutes into a match against Bury to avoid having to pay a fine for starting an ineligible player. Luton, by contrast, were penalised for their attempts to promote youth by fielding understrength teams throughout the group stage. Despite winning two of their three matches and advancing to the next round, they were fined the maximum £15,000.
A breakdown of revenue from this season’s Checkatrade Trophy sent by the EFL to the chairmen and CEOs of the 48 League One and League Two clubs shows that those who failed to qualify for the semi-finals or final enjoyed an increase of little more than £12,500 on average compared with last season for participating, once lost gate revenue had been factored in. Considering the poor attendances, rancour and media ridicule with which the EFL Trophy has recently become synonymous, it seems a woefully inadequate amount of compensation for the clubs involved.