Late on Sunday evening, an email addressed to every journalist covering teams in the Checkatrade Trophy was circulated by the English Football League.
The document, which acknowledged there has been “some confusion” about why the tournament was revamped, contained a number of “headline messages” designed to espouse its benefits including increased funding and opportunities afforded to young domestic players.
According to its organisers, this much maligned competition has seen almost 250 professionals aged 21 and under start matches for the 16 Premier League and Championship clubs invited to compete in the group stages. A total of 24 teenagers, operating at League One and League Two level, made their debuts during the opening round of games.
“The revised format,” the message continued, “Is part of the EFL’s long-term commitment to improve the performances of the national team and support the development” of home-grown talent.
Chris Wilder, the Sheffield United manager, has other ideas.
“Once again, games have been scheduled during international weeks,” he said ahead of tonight’s Northern Group H tie against Grimsby Town. “Which, to my mind, makes absolutely no sense at all. We’ve got lads, good young lads, who would have been involved in these fixtures but are away with their countries. So how does that help us? I don’t understand it or explain it at all.”
Wilder’s comments, combined with the fact the EFL felt compelled to mount yet another defence of the tournament, confirms it is struggling for credibility among supporters, administrators and coaching staff alike. United, who can not qualify for the knockout phases, are planning wholesale changes for the visit to north Lincolnshire which could possibly see them contravene Checkatrade Trophy rules. If less than five of the players who started last month’s victory over MK Dons do not feature in their first choice eleven, or five of Wilder’s top 11 appearance makers so far this term, then a fine of up to £5,000 could be payable.
Not that the 49-year-old, who believes abolishing emergency loans also inhibits the progress of up and coming English players, could give a jot.
“I don’t think it (prohibiting emergency loans) done any of the young players any good at all,” Wilder said. “Because young players need to play competitive football. Louis (Reed) played nowhere near as many games as he should have done last season. So we’ve had a look at that. There is an opportunity for people to go out and we aren’t going to stockpile players like some clubs. But we can’t leave ourselves light. The group that’s been hardest hit by the rule, in my opinion, is the young lads.”
With Grimsby also unable to reach the next phase of the competition, tonight’s fixture could break the record for the lowest ever attendance for a cup match at Blundell Park. That was set earlier this season when only 609 people watched the hosts, who appointed Marcus Bignot as their new manager on Monday, beaten 1-0 by Leicester City’s under-21’s.
Wilder said: “Everyone talks about there being a final at the end of it and, fine, yes there is. But, I went to watch games last year and Area finals weren’t even sold out. I went to watch Oxford at Millwall and there were loads of spaces. The only game that gets sold out is the second leg of the Area finals when there is a chance to get to Wembley. Then, the final gets a decent crowd.”