No To Under-21 Teams
Tranmere's return to the EFL gives the Super White Army a chance to reject, unequivocally, the admission of Under-21 teams to the EFL Trophy.
Posted: 03/09/18 | Updated: 06/03/19
Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2018. Information correct at the time of posting may no longer be so.
On 9th December 2014, Tranmere Rovers took to the Prenton Park pitch to face Walsall in the Northern Section semi-final of the Football League Trophy. Goals from Max Power and Kayode Odejayi had given Rovers a 2-0 half-time advantage and progress to the Northern Section final loomed on the horizon.
As was often the case with the 2014-15 Tranmere vintage, they threw away the two-goal lead and ended up drawing the match 2-2, after both regular and extra time, before succumbing to the Saddlers in the subsequent penalty shootout. After a first-round bye, and victories over Carlisle United and Bury, Tranmere were denied the opportunity to play for a place at Wembley.
Rovers' eventual relegation out of the Football League at the end of the 2014-15 campaign also denied them any further access to the competition as a whole, absent from proceedings during their three-year tenure in the National League.
Upon gaining promotion in May 2018, Tranmere became participants in the Football League Trophy once again, however the competition has undergone a controversial reimagining in the intervening years. The updated format is perhaps the most dangerous internal pressure facing lower league EFL clubs such as Tranmere. Let's explore.
Since its 1983 inception as the Associate Members' Cup, the tournament renamed the Football League Trophy in 1992 has always proved a somewhat experimental competition. There have been various formats, participants and regulations. For example, despite the competition's name, between 2001 and 2006, non-League Football Conference sides were permitted to enter.
The 2018-19 season brings yet more changes that make the competition a very different proposition to that which faced Rovers just four years ago.
In terms of format, the straight knockout nature of the competition has reverted to an initial group stage, where teams have been split into groups of four teams. There is nothing too controversial in that move, as there have been three-team and four-team group stages in previous incarnations of the tournament.
With regards personnel, there are still limitations on the number of changes an EFL club is allowed to make to the team. For 2018-19, an EFL club's ten outfield players must contain a minimum of four 'qualifying players'. These players need to fulfil one of the following criteria:
- — Started the match directly preceding the EFL Trophy fixture
- — Starts the match directly succeeding the EFL Trophy fixture
- — Is in the top ten appearance makers for the EFL club in that season
- — Has a minimum of forty senior career appearances (any club)
- — Is on loan at the EFL club from a Category One academy
Failure to adhere to these regulations can result in fines for the EFL club. Similar rules have existed at various points in the competition's history, so again there is little adjustment required for those who have previously experienced the EFL Trophy.
Perhaps more peculiar, extra time has been abolished from all games except the final, with ninety-minute draws proceeding straight to a penalty shootout, where the winners are given an extra point in addition to the one earned for the initial draw.
Unquestionably, the real controversy has developed in the invitation of Category One academies.
Ahead of the 2016-17 competition, EFL clubs voted to incorporate sixteen pre-selected Category One academies within the EFL Trophy tournament structure. These academies represented various Premier League and EFL Championship clubs and in 2018-19, will be bound by their own selection criteria:
- — Six of the starting eleven must have been under twenty-one years old in the June prior to the season starting
- — No more than two players who are both older than twenty-one years old and have forty or more senior career appearances (any club).
Before we can assess the current and potential impacts of inviting Category One academies into the competition, it is important to assess how we have arrived at this point, where the system seems rigged to benefit a small, elite cabal of ultra-wealthy clubs.
Establishment Of The Premier League
Ever since the breakaway of the First Division clubs in 1992 formed what is now known as the Premier League, the top clubs in England have constantly been looking at ways to generate more revenue. Of course, sponsorships, prize money and television rights have skyrocketed since that first somewhat selfish step and the member clubs continue to find ways to seemingly, as a proportion of incoming monies, share less and less.
In 1995, the Premier League reduced its membership numbers from 22 to 20, decreasing the fixture list from forty-two to thirty-eight fixtures. Fewer teams, fewer fixtures, greater slice of the pie.
Fast-forward to 2000 and FA Cup semi-final replays were abolished, whilst in 2008, all FA Cup semi-finals were mandated Wembley as a venue, completely ignoring the journeys of the northernmost English football fan. Also, Manchester United withdrew from the competition to instead play in FIFA's World Club Championship in Brazil, then United chief executive Martin Edwards saying it was unfair to expect their players to play seventy matches in a season and that the FA Cup would have to “give” because the more lucrative Premier League and Champions League could not.
By 2017, replays were removed from the quarter-final stages too. Think back to 2004, when John Achterberg made a heroic penalty save in an FA Cup quarter-final at Millwall — a game in which current Tranmere boss Micky Mellon played. That save allowed Tranmere to draw 0-0 and return to Prenton Park, as a third-tier club against a second-tier club, to play a home match to reach the FA Cup semi-finals. As the underdogs, they had home advantage and drew a bumper crowd of 15,510. Coupled with TV and prize money, the gate provided welcome additional revenue. If the original game was played this season, the second game, and all of the benefits that came with it, would not take place.
Come 2018, VAR was introduced into the FA Cup, Brighton's game against Crystal Palace the first match to implement the technology and ensure that games hosted by Premier League clubs are now literally played by a different set of rules.
Also in 2018, the League Cup witnessed the removal of extra time, again reducing playing time further.
Alongside tampering with the traditional league and cup structures to bow to the needs of the elite, the FA and the major clubs in England decided to bastardise the domestic transfer market too — critically damaging a major source of revenue for many League One and League Two EFL clubs, for whom player sales often meant the difference between a profit and a loss, administration and survival.
The Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) was voted in by the EFL on 20th October 2011, by forty-six votes to twenty-two (three no-shows, one abstention). It incorporated several destructive developments.
It abolished the 'ninety-minute' rule, which stopped clubs signing Under-18 players who lived more than ninety minutes away from their training facility. Now, Arsenal can sign young players who live in Gateshead and Manchester United a youngster based in Truro.
The EPPP Introduced a four-tier academy system, graded one to four, with one being the best. It brought in mandatory minimum standards for each tier — for example, when Ipswich Town applied to become a Category One academy in 2013, they were advised they would need a minimum academy budget of £2.5m and a base of eighteen full-time youth coaches. Even for a Championship club, that level of investment is steep — at League One and Two level, one would assume it's impossible.
One particularly odious provision afforded Category One academies the right, with just forty-eight hours' notice, to descend upon a lower tier academy and witness their youth training. Effectively, forced access for scouting.
And if the Category One academy should find a player they like? They can sign him, for a set initial fee that depends not on the ability of the player, but on the status of the club from which they are procuring the player's services. These set fees are often substantially lower than any negotiated fee would have been because there is now little or no negotiation.
By restructuring the youth football pyramid, these new recruits would be provided multiple opportunities to play and develop, with the Premier League 2, Professional Development League, U18 Premier League, U18 Professional Development League, Premier League Cup and Premier League International Cup all designed to cater to the needs of the 'elite' youngsters.
The whole EPPP is designed to benefit a handful of powerful clubs and the consequences on the rest of the English pyramid appear a price worth paying for those giant stakeholders. Even more than the sheer greed behind the scheme, which has been apparent at the top of football for a long time before the EPPP, is the suspicion that it isn't fit for purpose.
That isn't the view of a fan behind a keyboard — there are several prominent examples of clubs deciding the system doesn't work for them. In 2016, just five years after the vote to introduce EPPP, Championship Brentford closed their Category Two academy, reverting to a 'B' team who can play in selected matches against handpicked opposition. In 2017, Premier League Huddersfield Town took the decision to drop from a Category Two to a Category Four academy to enjoy and employ similar freedoms. In 2018, Tranmere restructured their academy along similar lines and opened an international soccer school too.
If, within five or six years, clubs at all levels, including Premier League Huddersfield Town, feel they cannot justify or afford to run academies under the EPPP plan, how long is it before most if not all EFL clubs follow suit? What would happen then? One would assume the initial development of players would be dictated by a few influential voices — the Category One academies. Is this such a good idea for player development?
There have been multiple horror stories of young players being discarded by these 'elite' academies at seventeen, eighteen, often younger, and it then falls upon the clubs further down the pyramid, from Championship to Sunday league, to clear up the mess created when these players are mishandled in the name of profit. The rich are getting richer and for many, the pursuit of money is put before the creation of young people. It is important to note that this does not apply to all clubs, yet it isn't a few isolated situations either.
Manchester City Under-21s
In Tranmere's first foray into the new EFL Trophy landscape, they have been drawn in Northern Group D, alongside Crewe Alexandra, Shrewsbury Town and Manchester City Under-21s.
On 30th October 2018, Rovers will host their first Category One academy, with the Citizens' Under-21 side stepping out onto the Prenton Park surface held so dear by the SWA. If ever there was an example of a modern footballing giant, it's Manchester City. In 2008, the Abu Dhabi United Group purchased City. In the subsequent decade, the City Football Group has helped to transform the blue half of Manchester into one of, if not the most powerful football entities in the world.
Aside from three Premier League titles, one FA Cup, three League Cups and two FA Community Shields, the group has undertaken the pursuit of many 'trophies'. In Pep Guardiola, they have acquired the ultimate trophy manager. Their investment in training facilities for the men's, women's and youth teams has given the Citizens a trophy infrastructure. They have upgraded the Etihad Stadium, giving the fans one of the biggest and best trophy stadiums in Europe.
Still, perhaps the most dangerous collection of trophies comes in the form of clubs themselves. Aside from a 100% stake in Manchester City, the City Football Group also owns 100% of Melbourne City FC in Australia, 100% of Club Atlético Torque in Uruguay, 80% of New York City FC in the United States, 44.3% of Girona FC in Spain and 20% of Yokohama F. Marinos in Japan. Ten years, six clubs, five continents, one direction.
Whilst similar football conglomerates have been founded in recent years, notably Red Bull's purchase of three clubs, FC Red Bull Salzburg (Austria), New York Red Bulls (USA) and RB Liepzig (Germany), there has arguably never been a unifying force as strong as that posed by City's owners.
Somewhat ironically, City are now Manchester's most literally united club, both on and off the field.
Said unity feeds down into the youth setup, where, like the other Category One academies, hordes of young prospects from all across the globe are signed to a single development setup. Yet, despite owning whole or partial stakes in six different clubs, Manchester City still felt it was necessary to accept the invitation extended their way to join the 2017-18 EFL Trophy.
Admittedly, they did use the competition in the manner it was designed. For their opening EFL Trophy game vs Rotherham United on 15th August 2017, City did not name a player over the age of nineteen in the matchday squad. So, there is that positive.
Conversely, their selection that day also serves as evidence to dispel some of the most used arguments supporting academy inclusion. For example:
“It will provide young English players an opportunity to experience senior football.”
If the manager selects young English players, yes. However, as we have already covered, most clubs with Category One academies have continental, if not global scope, with recruitment occurring from across the planet. The Manchester City U21 squad that played Rotherham contained just eight (of sixteen) English youths, with two Swiss, two Welsh, one Dutch, one Argentinean, one Irish and one Norwegian. Therefore, the English players constituted just 50% of the selected squad.
“It will help young players learn about senior football.”
Will it? If an academy central midfielder is surrounded by young midfielders left and right, young defenders behind and young attackers in front, are they playing senior football? Or are they merely playing against a senior team? How can a young player learn from players with as little, or less, senior experience as themselves?
Four of the City U21 side that played against Rotherham went onto loan spells with other clubs. Charles Oliver joined Fleetwood Town until the end of the 2017-18 season. Jacob Davenport was loaned to Burton Albion until May 2018, at which point he made a permanent transfer to Blackburn Rovers. Edward Francis (Almere City) and Matthew Smith (FC Twente) have both joined Dutch second-tier clubs on loan for the duration of the 2018-19 campaign, whilst Javairo Dilrosun signed a four-year contract with Bundesliga club Hertha Berlin in the summer.
If the EFL Trophy was purely about helping young players learn about senior football, why would Manchester City, and indeed the players themselves, decide almost a third of the squad who competed last season, all of whom would have remained eligible, should not continue their development in that tournament for 2018-19?
It may have something to do with the U21's 2017-18 performance where, having drawn two and lost one of their games, they finished bottom of their group and were eliminated after just three matches. Given the bizarre rules and the relative inexperience of their teammates, the quantity and quality of their learning must surely come into question?
2017-18 Invited Team Performance
City's poor performance was not an isolated anomaly. Of the sixteen invited teams in 2017-18, twelve were eliminated in the group stage, ten lost more than they won and seven finished bottom of their group. In the forty-eight group stage fixtures involving academies, there were just ten academy victories, with five of those coming from Swansea City U21s (three) and West Ham United U21s (two). This means that the other fourteen academies recorded just five combined victories from forty-three combined attempts.
In the knockout stages, only Chelsea U21s threatened to win the tournament, reaching the semi-finals before losing a penalty shootout to the eventual winners Lincoln City. This progress is still alarming nonetheless. The mere fact that one or, worst-case scenario, two academies could reach the final of the EFL Trophy should be spine-chilling for all involved — the EFL Trophy contested by clubs who have done so much damage to the EFL, and for whom a potentially career-defining trophy would be little more than a development tool.
Elite Youths vs. Non-Elite Professionals
The Category One 2017-18 performances were awful. There are any number of possible reasons for this, but one possible cause could be the role of consequence. Or, more specifically, the lack thereof.
Whilst it may not be high on the priority list for many associated with Premier League and Championship clubs, the EFL Trophy is an incredibly prestigious competition in the larger picture of the English domestic pyramid.
To start with, qualification comes for those clubs forty-ninth to ninety-second in the country. Eight members of the top one hundred football clubs, out of the hundreds, possibly thousands the length and breadth of the country, will not even qualify.
James Norwood, Stephen McNulty, Scott Davies et al have, over the course of three gruelling seasons in the National League, fought, run, sweated and even bled to earn the right to qualify for the tournament. The SWA, Mark and Nicola Palios and everyone connected with Tranmere Rovers have been there, every step of the way, willing them to succeed in their battle. Finally, in May 2018, they conquered their Everest and returned Rovers to the ranks of the fabled ninety-two.
Whilst players at clubs such as Tranmere, Macclesfield Town, Grimsby Town, Cheltenham Town and Lincoln City, amongst many others, scratched and clawed their way out of non-League football, the fight is not over. They must, every season, tussle with ever greater vigour to remain in the EFL, with a host of ex-EFL and aspiring EFL clubs queued behind the non-League trapdoor should they falter.
At the same time, young players who remain at Category One academies are now handed a place in the EFL Trophy without any of the struggle? It spits in the face of the hard work of players, staff and fans who work so tirelessly to get their clubs into the EFL, and to keep them there.
If an EFL manager starts the season poorly, there is every chance they could be fired if they lost an EFL Trophy game. Would an academy manager lose theirs? If an EFL player gets suspended or injured during an EFL Trophy game, it can directly impact that club's season. It can be the difference between promotion and midtable mediocrity, safety and relegation. Would Man City win the Premier League if one of their U21 players was to get injured against Rovers? How many of their fans would even notice?
Quite simply, being involved in the EFL Trophy is an honour. It takes some players years to earn a place. Places should not be auctioned off to the highest bidder, as it is totally disrespectful to the dedicated professionals of the lower leagues, whose only fault is perhaps falling short in talent where their heart, dedication and desire remains every bit as fervent as their more illustrious contemporaries, if not even greater.
Let's make a comparison between two players; Liandro Martis and Eddie Clarke.
Liandro Martis (twenty-two) plays for Leicester City. He had trials with Tranmere, Oldham Athletic and Manchester United in July 2016. The Curaçao international doesn't appear to have played a single minute for the Leicester first team, but has played sixty-three minutes against Fleetwood Town on 29th August 2017 in the EFL Trophy.
Eddie Clarke (nineteen) was with Tranmere Rovers in 2017-18. He made his debut in a 2-1 defeat at Aldershot Town on 21st October 2017 and made a further fourteen appearances, including playing at Wembley in the 2018 National League Promotion Final, where he was part of the ten-man team that won promotion to the EFL. He earned a move to League One Fleetwood Town during the summer.
In the 2018-19 EFL Trophy, both Leicester City U21s and Fleetwood Town were drawn into Northern Group B, meaning Liandro and Eddie could meet on the field of play. If both were to play, one could be considered an 'elite' youngster representing the former Premier League champions, but would have no senior appearances to their name. The other could be considered an EFL professional, representing a smaller club but with a Wembley appearance and a promotion to his name, despite being three years younger than the other.
So, if both of those players were to meet on the field of play, if both were to come face to face at the same place, at the same time, whose development will have taught them more? More importantly, who has the better prospects — the player with the promotion, the trophy and an admittedly fledgling EFL career, or the 'elite' youngster who is older, has no senior experience and has no senior trophy?
Rejecting The Current Arrangements
Given the inherent problems and dangers posed by the admission of U21 teams into the EFL Trophy, it is unsurprising that the move has been met with almost universal indignation amongst fans of lower league EFL sides.
Across the board, attendances for the U21 fixtures of this competition have been substantially lower than those for regular EFL league games. In 2017-18, the total combined attendance for fixtures involving the academies was 57,942, at an average of 1207.
However, this is somewhat misleading, as just four academies — Chelsea, Everton, Manchester City and West Ham United — accounted for 22,615, at an average of 1885. This means the other twelve academies combined drew just 35,327, at an average of 981.
Delve even deeper and you will find even these averages are heavily skewed by just a handful of relatively well-attended games. For example, Leicester's academy drew 432, 517 and 1009 fans — so two out of three attendances were significantly below the 981 average.
Another academy, Swansea City, had three attendances (801, 750, 590) where none reached the average figure — an occurrence also experienced by Middlesbrough (587, 876, 691).
So, whilst the Club and players are obligated to participate in the fixtures, one could argue the SWA are morally obligated to participate in the boycott started by fans of our fellow EFL clubs. Some argue against this, which is their right, whilst others advocate boycotting just the games involving the academies, a position that is rather less understandable.
If someone wants to support the players at every game, then that is completely understandable. However, why would a partial boycott work? The academies did not vote themselves into the EFL Trophy — that was the EFL clubs' decision. As Rovers were not a member at the time, they shoulder absolutely none of the blame for that decision, which has been forced upon them by the other EFL clubs. The current situation lies at the feet of the EFL clubs who voted against the EFL clubs' long-term interests for a short-term cash fix, and therefore, one could argue, must also be sent a message.
The choice is pretty clear. Either attend all matches and support the players, or boycott all matches, including any potential Wembley final. Neither position is wrong, but the absolute worst course of action must surely be a partial boycott, as it absolves the EFL clubs of their portion of the blame for the mess that has been created.
The individual members of the SWA must decide for themselves the route they wish to take, but at Deadly Submarine, we are advocating a total boycott of the competition until such times as academies are no longer invited to participate.
Instead, we would advise people to purchase additional merchandise from the Club shop, extra tickets to league games, sponsor players, etc — anything that can put money into Tranmere Rovers without, in any way, supporting the EFL Trophy. The aim is not hurt Rovers — none of this is their fault — but to stand hand in hand with fellow EFL fans for whom this development is potentially disastrous.
Summary — Money vs. Principles
The EFL Trophy. A source of opportunity for many lower league EFL clubs for almost four decades. Opportunity to play at Wembley, which Rovers seized in both 1990 and 1991. Opportunity for a trophy, which Tranmere snatched with both hands in 1990. Opportunity to make a name for yourself, which countless players and the Club itself wrestled from their EFL counterparts. Opportunity to make history, the EFL Trophy still the only nationally-contested cup competition Rovers have ever won.
Yet now, in 2018, the cup of opportunity has become the cup of opportunists. Of powerful forces wading in where they have no business and where they should not be welcomed. Of greed so overwhelming, clubs cannot find senior playing time for players stored like proverbial factory hens in glorified football farms. Of feasts for the few and crumbs for the many — if they sing the correct song, tell the correct joke or dance the correct steps.
As has hopefully been conveyed, the monied elites of football have taken every action possible to reduce their competition. Breaking away from the Football League to reduce competition for television revenue. Cutting the number of Premier League members to thin the herd yet further. Reducing cups fixtures, perhaps even withdrawing due to fixture congestion, to chase the foreign riches of European and world football. Breaking the transfer market to reduce competition for youth talent.
And now, after decades of damaging the lower reaches of the professional pyramid, the clubs ask the EFL's member clubs for support? At fiscal gunpoint? It is absolutely revolting.
On 29th August 2018, Mark Palios issued a statement saying “everybody involved is acutely aware that this is not going to be the thin end of the wedge in terms of Premier League clubs being able to enter B teams into the EFL”.
Let's make our position clear. This is not about trusting or distrusting Mark Palios or Tranmere Rovers. In a strange way, a protest would not be about Tranmere Rovers, or any individual connected with them, yet would focus around non-attendance at their fixtures.
As we have already discussed, Tranmere have to enter the competition. They did not vote on the format and thus there is no fault to be found at Prenton Park. However, in recent seasons, the likes of Manchester City have started building what can only be described as football 'empires'. One EFL club was bought and moved to another town. Another EFL club's hierarchy has sued their own fans. Multiple EFL clubs have been lumbered with massive debts and several have seen assets stolen from their grasp. It is those people, who have proven time and again that they will put money before principles, that any message needs to target.
For many clubs, whose chances of real cup progress, or of developing a future England star, or of ever reaching the big money of the Premier League have been slimmed to the precipice of non-existence, their identity is the only thing they have left.
And now the very entities that have stolen everything else from them are coming for that too. One would be forgiven for believing having academies in the EFL Trophy is a direct threat to the future of lower league EFL football. Every move made by the elite clubs in England in the past few decades suggests that this first step will not be the last.
For years, the EFL and its fans, especially clubs and fans in League One and League Two, have been taking blows from clubs further up the ladder. Now, it must be time to start punching back?
The EFL Trophy provides you with the chance to land a few uppercuts of your own, should you choose to.