The Football League landscape is very different to the one we left six years ago. For a start it isn’t the ‘Football League’ anymore, instead we’re lumbered with the American sounding EFL, a snazzy acronym intended to give the 72 team competition a rebrand.
Now, instead of the League Cup being drawn in a back-room at FA Headquarters, officials fly off to Thailand to oversee Charlton being drawn twice. Whilst we used to play in cups named after beers (Carling, Worthington’s), we now have to try to spell the Carabao Cup named after an energy drink I think. Or energy bar. Or Thai fruit. Nobody is really sure.
We also have the EFL Trophy, the current branding of the Auto Windscreens Shield, the Freight Rover Trophy, or the Mickey Mouse Trophy as it is properly known. Participation in the EFL Trophy has become a contentious debate across the lower leagues, and although it hasn’t been of interest to us for six years, we’re now dropped bang in the middle of it.
Our own ultras group, the 617 squadron, have decided to boycott the competition this season. A statement provided to the Stacey West on behalf of the group stated that:
“It (the EFL Trophy) is a prelude to fielding Premier League and Championship B teams in the divisions (of the EFL) and who knows what else, maybe Rangers and Celtic teams. It just validates the EFL view that they can ignore fans opinions even when they ask them.
We are standing shoulder to shoulder with fans across the country against the imposition of a format we don’t want. The purpose of including under 21 teams is proven to be a smokescreen. The extension of this format is detrimental to football at all levels”
The move comes amidst another year of protesting by a group called ‘Against League Three’, who also released a statement in the wake of the announcement the competition would retain the same format as last season for the next two campaigns. This came despite some teams consulting fans and having the proposals universally rejected.
“Against League 3 acknowledges the statement released by The EFL confirming the EFL Trophy will continue in the current format, with several cosmetic changes, for the next two seasons.
The EFL has consistently disregarded the views of the game’s key stakeholder, the supporter. Where fan consultation was conducted, it was ignored. In two extreme cases, Carlisle United and Notts County ignored over 95% of their respondents. Why should any EFL fan ever take another club survey?”
“For years supporters have been spoon-fed excuse after excuse for lower league clubs being required to bend to The Premier League and The English National Team. The Football League was forced to vote in EPPP, allowing youngsters to be stockpiled at Premier League clubs rather than gaining first team experience in The EFL. When those stockpiles become too large, the Premier League invades a competition it deliberately split away from in 1992 to retain a larger share of the money flowing through the sport.
Furthermore, the Premier League responded to Andy Holt’s criticism of Premier League finance distribution with a small minded, threatening, cowardly press release. It threatened the funding, and therefore the users of Accrington Stanley’s community outreach programmes. Shame on the Premier League for threatening those in need.
What concessions is The Premier League making for the England team? Is it playing English youngsters? No. Are they conducting responsible business in the transfer market? No.
Every other club in the pyramid has to wait and see whether the FA and the Premier League need a winter break. Whether they want the FA Cup is to be changed. Whether they want to play in the EFL Trophy. How long can this continue? When will enough ever be enough?”
The statement goes on to lament the lack of EFL involvement in several high-profile ownership battles at member clubs, including struggles at Blackburn, Charlton and Leyton Orient.
The EFL Trophy looks set to divide fans this season, especially now the 617 have chosen to boycott the competition. Is it the right thing to do? How can we truly be sure that this is a smokescreen to cover up covert moves to bring B teams into the fold? I contacted a 617 representative who added this to their statement:
“English teams are not fielding their young English talent which was the argument for the inclusion of under 23s. This is just further proof that this competition has become a guinea pig for the FA in terms of the restructuring of the football league as we know it.”
That isn’t exactly proof of a covert operation to bring B teams into a League Three, but the point is valid. After watching a tepid England last week in relatively weak showings against Scotland and ten-man France, there is a call for change within our England set-up. The England under 20 World Cup win was heralded as proof that St Georges Park and the EFL Trophy are having a positive effect on our national game.
Of the eleven players who started the under 20 World Cup final, only Fikayaro Tomori played any part in the EFL Trophy, turning out twice for the Chelsea under 23 side. Freddie Woodman and Dominic Solanke spent time out on loan at Kilmarnock and Vitesse, meaning more of the squad were loaned out abroad than featured in this nurturing competition. It may be early days, but when under 20 players do not play in a tournament that is being hacked up to accommodate them, surely the format doesn’t work?
The 617 spokesperson believes this to be the case, and further outlined the basis of their action:
“We as football fans have allowed the game to be moulded into something it should not be with very little fight back, right now anything that threatens the game as we know it should be fought against with everything fans can give and the best way of showing that is a lack of attendance. The consultation ignored the views of fans by clubs and the EFL who overwhelmingly voted against it, when they were given a choice.”
It isn’t just the 617 boycotting the competition though, they’re appealing directly to you to support their actions, for the reasons outlined above.
“The decision to ask for direct actions from the wider fan base is something we don’t take lightly but in this case something we feel necessary. If you wish for the Football League as we know it and its standard of football to remain as high as it does for football clubs like ourselves and those across the country not to be made a mockery of, then join us in taking direct action and not letting the powers that be push Premier League B teams through the back door. The time to fight back is now.”
Not everybody feels the same way. A City fan who wished not to be named isn’t in agreement that the best way to fight back is by boycotting matches, although he does understand the threat the competition poses.
“Firstly, I do respect the 617 decision not to attend matches in the competition, and they are also entitled to ask other fans for support. I will not be boycotting the games, and I hope sincerely that those of us who do still go along are not subject to any sort of abuse or negative response. I feel the thinly veiled threat of B teams being introduced into the EFL is no more than speculation, and less likely to actually happen than 30 minute halves or sin bins.”
Whether the proposals are likely to happen or not isn’t really the issue. I think there is much more than the fear of B teams and a League Three behind boycotts, not just with the 617 but also across the country. Since we’ve been gone the EFL and its belligerent Chief Executive have been accused of treating its members with contempt. Luton Town received a fine for playing a so-called weakened side in the EFL Trophy last season, essentially fined for playing young players in a tournament designed to prompt development. In the wider football world the Premier League issued a covert threat to Accrington Stanley after chairman Andy Holt hit out at their attitudes towards EFL clubs.
This is much more of a class argument, the working-class football fan, the ardent lower-league supporter standing up to the gargantuan Premier League bullies and the short-sighted EFL decision makers. The financial gulf between the top-flight and the basement division has never been greater, some agents fees alone would be enough to secure the future of teams such as Accrington for years to come. Our younger players are being stockpiled by big clubs, often left to degrade and fester away like rotten fruit, rather than being given the opportunities they need to play regular football. I am in agreement that something needs to change, and I don’t think many would argue against that. My Imps fan had this to add.
“Yes something has to be done, but not at the expense of Danny and the boys. I support Lincoln City, and whether we like the format or not we will be playing in the EFL Trophy. Some of you will be too young to remember our two-legged semi-final with Port Vale at the turn of the century, collectively almost 10,000 watched those two games. We were just short of a Wembley appearance, a shining light in an otherwise poor season. Danny Cowley is a winner and he approaches every game with a view to winning it. He believes the fans are the 12th man, he believes we make a difference. If he wants me there to cheer the lads on then my allegiance is to him and to Lincoln City. I salute the motive behind the boycott, but if you want to get your message across why not go and picket the FA outside their headquarters? Why do something that loses the club we support revenue, and carry out an action that is detrimental to our progress in a competition. Our best chance of a Wembley appearance comes in the EFL Trophy, could you really let misguided principles stand in the way of you seeing Lincoln City finally play at Wembley? I couldn’t.”
I can see both sides of the argument, and at present I probably won’t boycott the competition myself unless Danny Cowley himself says he supports it. I fully acknowledge and appreciate the 617 stance, as a hard line ultras group they will be defined by the stances they take on issues like this, just as much as the noise and visual displays. I just hope that the two groups agree to disagree when it comes to a boycott.