Firstly, I’m not going to get drawn into the argument about the competition. That’s not the point of this article.
The point is to establish if the Papa John’s Trophy is actually a good breeding ground for young players. Do those cold autumn and winter nights on the road help our Under 21 players, and thus our England players? Whatever the outcome of Saturday’s World Cup game, the England team is packed with exciting young players, and some of those got their first taste of senior football in this competition. For instance, Bukayo Saka and Mason Mount both first played in the competition.
But have Lincoln City ever faced potential stars in the competition? If not, which players who have played against us for their Under 21 side have gone on to better things? Here are 14 ‘big’ names that the Imps have faced as kids in the Papa John’s trophy, or whatever it was being sold as at the time.
Nathangelo Markelo – Everton Under 21
Markelo played as we beat Everton U21s the first time, along with a host of players who have gone on to make senior appearances in the Football League. I’ve picked Markelo to star as he’s now in the Dutch top flight with Excelsior and playing international football for Curacao.
Josh Bowler – Everton Under 21
Bowler is a player we were linked with when we knocked on the door of the Championship – it’s believed it was between Blackpool and us vying for his signature. They went up, we did not, and he signed for the Tangerines. This summer, Nottingham Forest spent a couple of million on him and immediately loaned him to Olympiacos, where he’s twice appeared in the Europe League.
Trevoh Chalobah – Chelsea Under 21
Chelsea’s lineup was quite special in the grand scheme of things, and looking back, the result was a good one for the Imps. Chalobah is the first of four I’ve picked – he’s recently penned a long-term deal with the London side and has established himself as a key member of Graham Potter’s first-team squad.
Reece James – Chelsea Under 21
Were it not for injury; we’d be talking about an England World Cup star here. Reece James slipped under the radar when they came to the Bank, but he played as he had in all of their Checkatrade Trophy games that season. The following campaign, he got a loan move to Wigan, which saw him start his journey to the top of the English game.
Ethan Ampadu – Chelsea Under 21
Ethan Ampadu was a World Cup star this season (we’ll use ‘star’ loosely) and not the only one to have started in the EFL Trophy. Ampadu, a former Exeter City youngster, already had senior experience, so his journey is a little different. He appeared in all of Wales’ World Cup games and is on loan in Serie A with Spezia.
Callum Hudson-Odoi – Chelsea Under 21
Callum Hudson-Odoi scored four goals in his three group matches in the 2017/18 Checkatrade Trophy and used the competition as a springboard for senior success. He had already played for the Blues’ first team the night he came to Sincil Bank, and he’s still a serious prospect, with a loan spell at Bayer Leverkusen currently going well.
Pedro Goncalves – Wolves Under 21
The game against Wolves doesn’t stick in my mind – it was the evening I travelled to the game to do a shirt exhibition and then drove home again! We got through the group stages, but Wolves didn’t appear to be a huge draw. Goncalves might not have stood out, but he’s now playing Champions League football for Sporting. He appeared against Spurs earlier in the season and was sent off against Marseille.
James Garner – Man Utd Under 21
Michael Appleton’s first game in charge saw a strong United side come to the Bank and get a win – the only Under 21 side to do so in normal time. James Garner got the goal, and he’s since been a revelation, playing 49 times for Forest last season as they were promoted, earning a £9m move to Everton in the summer. Big things are expected of him from here, playing for tonight night’s opponent’s senior side.
Largie Ramazani – Man Utd Under 21
Ramazani is just 21, but he not only appeared against the Imps but is now playing in La Liga for Almeria. The Belgian forward helped them to promotion last season and has bagged against Evilla and Real Madrid this campaign.
Anthony Elanga – Man Utd Under 21
Swedish winger Elanga is another who used the EFL Trophy as a springboard, starting out in the competition with Man Utd Under 21s but forcing his way into the first-team picture. His first game in the famous shirt came at the Bank, and he appeared in the same competition a year later. He’s since started 21 Premier League games for United.
Felix Nmecha – Man City Under 21s
The Man City side didn’t have as many future stars as you might think, but given the game was only played two years ago, there could be more to emerge, such as Oscar Bobb. Felix Nmecha is one who has already impressed – he was a Trophy regular the season before we faced Man City and actually appeared in the Champions League for them before stepping out at the Bank
Romeo Lavia – Man City Under 21s
We might see Lavia lining up against City this season, but it doesn’t mean he’s dropped into League One. Instead, the Belgian is currently with Southampton, which could change in the winter window. He cost the Saints £10.5m, but Chelsea are said to be lining up a £25m swoop. His first appearance in senior football? Away at Sincil Bank.
Darko Gyabi – Man City Under 21s
Gyabi is one step behind Lavia – he’s played at Sincil Bank in the Trophy, and he’s been bought by another Premier League club (Leeds, £5m), but he hasn’t appeared much in their first team. He is only 18, and he has appeared in this season’s EFL Trophy for the Whites.
Hannibal Mejbri – Man Utd Under 21s
Hannibal made the news (in Imps terms) when he came to the Bank with Man Utd’s youth side – he was sent off as we went from 3-0 up to 3-2 in 2020/21. He was already a Tunisian international at that stage, and this winter, he appeared as a sub in their group game against Denmark as they became the first African side to win a group at the World Cup. He’s currently on loan at Birmingham City in the Championship.
There are benefits to the competition on both sides of the coin. Some good players have started out in the EFL Trophy, even if they’re not all benefitting the English game. However, with the prize money and the chance to get minutes into players such as Danny Mandroiu, I still feel there’s value in the EFL Trophy. I don’t like watching Under 21s play my team, but as a workout, it’s a good opportunity, and who knows, Everton might be fielding a World Cup star of 2026.
I just won’t be there to see it.