The numbers are in: Shaun Harvey and his Checkatrade Trophy have failed. Both must be scrapped.
With just the final left to play, we can begin to measure the success or otherwise of this season’s changes to the Checkatrade Trophy. By bringing in young players from top academies, did it – as promised – revitalise a struggling competition? Did it inject new excitement for fans, new money for clubs and new hope for the future of the England national team?
If the changes achieved their stated aims, we should expect to have seen lots of extra games for young English players without compromising the quality and attractiveness of the tournament. To check if it happened, I looked at every game where a B Team featured and examined its starting 11. I then noted all players who were 21 or under and who are eligible for England.*
What did I find – and how did the presence of B Teams affect the competition?
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1: The B Teams did make an effort
Over half of each B Team’s starting 11 were English-qualified u21s. Putting out an average 5.8 English youngsters isn’t bad when you consider the rules only mandated that 6 young players of any nationality must start. So, despite the derision the competition drew when teams fielded whipper-snappers like Charlie Adam and Peter Crouch, most B Teams tried to comply with the spirit as well as the letter of the law.
2. The format remains inherently flawed
In total, B Teams took the field for 61 games, 48 of them in the group phase. Obviously, if more B Teams had progressed beyond the groups, the total number of games would’ve increased – but not dramatically so.** This highlights a problem with the structure of the competition. There are only a limited number of slots in the calendar for competitive fixtures.
As it is, the competition delivered a total of 356 starts for 165 English u21s. If that sounds respectable, remember that the hypothetical maximum number of starts in a 20-team reserve league would be 8,360.
Shaun Harvey pictured with his giant white rabbit and his giant white elephant
3. The number of games won’t materially help English football
The average English u21 in a B Team started 2.2 games. Just 62 players started 3 or more games. Only 18 started 4 or more.
Even if everything else in the Checkatrade Trophy was running perfectly, you have to ask yourself if all this upheaval is worth it to deliver an extra 180 minutes of football a year for a small group of young players.
I defy even the most blinkered football administrator to argue 2.2 additional games will make the slightest difference to the careers of players or the future of the England team.***
4. The changes have been hugely unpopular
The small amount of extra games for young players came at a massive costs. Attendances tumbled, down from an average 3,221 last season to 1,404 this. That is a 56% decrease, year on year.****
By any measure, this is a catastrophic fall and clear evidence that, whatever the competition’s preexisting problems, introducing B Teams has been an enormously unpopular move. The final, which won’t include any B Teams, may well be better attended, but it would be a cynical and desperate move if the EFL tried to claim that a good turn out on the day proves fans are coming round to the new format.
There has been a strong boycott movement but many fans will, quite understandably, not want to miss out on a once in a lifetime trip to Wembley. In many ways, it’s these fans who are victims of Shaun Harvey’s ill-considered changes. Their big day out has been devalued; the shine taken off the occasions by the blundering attempt to use the competition for other purposes. Lower division clubs don’t have much – not much money, not much press or TV coverage – but they alone had the EFL Trophy, until they were made to share it with Premier League bench-warmers of the future.
A modest proposal for Shaun Harvey’s career
What next for the competition and for Shaun Harvey?
I don’t know Shaun Harvey and so I don’t know if his consistent defence of the Checkatrade Trophy is born of a genuine belief that things will improve next year. I have to assume it is.
What’s clear to me, though, is that even if opposition from fans softened and attendances drastically improved, the format cannot meet its stated objectives. It wasn’t a bold failure, a risky idea ahead of its time. It was a bad, inherently flawed idea that many people, me included, said would fail long before it happened.
If English football has a problem with young players getting competitive games – and I think we’re all agreed that it does – this simply isn’t the answer. It’s not even a small part of the answer.
You will only dramatically increase the number of games these players get by limiting the number of players in top academies. Put simply: if we want more young players to play more often, we have to stop the top clubs hogging them all. We have to get them to teams who will play them. I have thoughts on how to do this.
The bigger worry, especially for anyone who’s been surveying the landscape for the last few years, is that the EFL may have known the changes wouldn’t work but, instead, were doing some groundwork for full B Team league participation. The league continues to deny this, but it’s easy to imagine that, following England’s inevitably disappointing showing at Russia 2018, the idea will rise again from its shallow grave and begin to rattle windows at the FA and EFL.
The response of Shaun Harvey to the problems with his pet project was first to insist that fans were wilfully misunderstanding the competition and then, more recently, to admit teething problems but point to the financial contribution of the EPL to the new format. Ok, he asks disingenuously, you say it doesn’t work, but what’s your idea for filling the funding gap if the EPL withdraws support?
This is the classic response of someone determined to have their way. I’ve sold some of the roof tiles for cash and, unless you can instantly come up with a better idea for getting free money, you’ll leave me with no choice but to sell some more.
The appropriate response is not to detail how to improve the trophy, although there are many ideas – like hyper-localisation of groups and inclusion of select non-league teams to produce guaranteed local derbies – but, instead to ask some questions of Shaun Harvey.
Could you tell us, please:
- How did you fail to anticipate that your plan wouldn’t satisfy either fans or Premier League clubs?
- Why is the EFL, on your watch, so short of money that fundamental decisions like the reform of its competitions are driven not by a coherent strategy but by a need to beg handouts from the Premier League?
- How can fans of league clubs have confidence in your assurances that league B Teams won’t be proposed again?
- How, in fact, can anyone have confidence in your ideas for the future of the EFL when your two main initiatives – the Checkatrade Trophy and the ambitious but misguided Whole Game Solution – have both run into the sand? And, above all,
- Why, with clubs from Charlton and Coventry to Blackpool and Blackburn in crisis, are you tinkering with cup formats and new logos instead of tackling the overwhelming urgency of reforming ownership?
If Shaun Harvey thought his changes would benefit either the Checkatrade Trophy, or English football generally, he was totally wrong. And, if he was testing the water for B Teams in the league, he’s been shown decisively that fans won’t accept them.
To me, the final conclusion is clear: Shaun Harvey has let down the clubs who pay his wages and the fans who fill their stadia.
He must resign.
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* I counted all players starting games for B Teams who were 21 or under at the start of the season and who were either born in England or are qualified for England and have not made an international appearance for another country. The figures, then, don’t include players making substitute appearances for B Teams nor otherwise eligible players who competed for league teams while on loan from clubs in the top two divisions. Note: It is possible that some players may have appeared in the Checkatrade who are not currently qualified for England but may later become so. Imagine, for example, a 17 year old originally from Nigeria. If he has only moved to an English club in the last year or two, he won’t be qualified for England but, in he stays in the academy for another three or four years, that may change.
** The total maximum number of outings for B Teams in the current format is 86. And, for that to happen, it would require half the B Teams in the North and South sections to win their group, half to finish second and then a perfect draw to take place in the second round so that rounds three and beyond consisted solely of B Teams. This isn’t impossible, but you shouldn’t bank on it happening in your lifetime. In fact, even if B Teams did quite a bit better next year, it’s hard to imagine them ever earning more than 70 outings. This season, then, seems like a decent yardstick for how many games the competition would likely provide if it continued in its current format.
*** I am not trying to set an unreasonable bar for Shaun Harvey’s ideas, here. As someone who has argued, largely unsuccessfully, that football has much to learn from how American football is run, the innate conservatism of fans and administrators is enormously frustrating. Propose any solution and football fans will pause briefly from bemoaning football’s problems to tell you all the flaws in your idea before returning to complaining about the state of the game. In my view, football needs more experimental, bold, evidence-based administrators. The test for an idea shouldn’t be ‘is it perfect?’ but ‘is it a significant improvement on what we have now without compromising core principles or unreasonably driving up costs?’ I think, though, by any measure, Shaun Harvey’s leadership just hasn’t delivered.
**** In comparing attendances, I excluded last year’s final in recognition of the fact that this year’s hasn’t yet taken place (as of 02 March 2017).