In November 2016 five clubs were fined a total of £60,000 by the EFL for contravening “full strength” rules in the Checkatrade Trophy. Luton Town and Portsmouth broke the rules in three games, each being docked £15,000. The third and final matches in the group stages had seen attendances in most of games plummet below four figures with Portsmouth having their lowest attendance since WW2 for a competitive match at Fratton Park.
Luton and Portsmouth had not complied with full strength rules that involved them putting five first team players in their starting line-up. The “first team players” could have been from those who played in the last league game, or the next league match, or the highest appearance makers in the season so far. Bradford City had found a way to circumvent the rules by substituting their “first team” goalkeeper after just three minutes in a game against Bury. Their assistant manager joked “I thought he had a poor 45 seconds”. Since then other clubs have followed suit. Accrington Stanley did it on Tuesday night at Wigan by taking off Billy Kee after four minutes.
Wigan Athletic will surely face a fine of at least £5,000 for the line-up put out by Paul Cook three days ago. The only member of the senior squad who played was Tyrell Thomas, who is 21 years old, his three league appearances this season having been as a substitute. Ten of the starting line-up were under 20 years of age, with the 15-year-old Jenson Weir coming on as a substitute after 69 minutes.
The 4-0 scoreline in favour of the visitors was no surprise, given the inexperience in the Wigan team. The game could be roughly described as one between Accrington’s second choice side and Latics’ third choice. It proved to be a mismatch which few of the 1,473 spectators present would have truly enjoyed. So why did Cook put out such a line-up? Did he give due warning to the fans that it would be the case?
Cook had given some indication of his line-up before the game by saying “I enjoy the youngsters coming in and showing what they can do. We took 700 fans to Blackpool in the first game, and it’s great for the kids to be playing in front of those numbers. I’m sure there’ll be more kids in the team for this one, and that’s great for Gregor (Rioch) and the Academy.”
But the team that started at Blackpool was largely composed of members of the senior squad, including the likes Donervon Daniels, Alex Gilbey, Jamie Jones, David Perkins and Max Power who had years of EFL experience under their belts. Was the manager being fair to the youngsters who played, or on the fans who turned up on Tuesday? Why did he not include senior squad members in need of match practice?
Cook had alluded to resting players in his pre-match comments: “We felt this week, with all the games we’ve played recently, it was a bit of a ‘lower’ week in terms of giving some lads a break. I just feel that with 16 league games, the Checkatrade Trophy, the Carabao Cup, and now the FA Cup, lads are just starting to show the first signs of fatigue.”
However, what he did not explain is why players who had been side-lined or spent most of their time on the bench were not played. Was it because he wanted to maintain harmony in the senior squad by giving them all (barring Terell Thomas) a rest, not just those who have played a lot of games up to this point? Or was it because he holds scant regard for the Checkatrade Trophy?
The EFL Trophy, currently sponsored by Checkatrade, started in the 1983-84 season as the Associate Members’ Cup. It was a competition involving clubs from the bottom two tiers of the Football League. Wigan Athletic were winners in its second season in 1984-85 was, beating Brentford 3-1 in front of 39,897 spectators at Wembley. At the time it was sponsored by Freight Rover.
In 1992 the third and fourth tier clubs received full voting rights after the First Division had broken away from the Football League to form the Premier League. Its name was duly changed to the Football League Trophy. Latics went on to win the competition again in April 1999 when they beat Millwall 1-0 at Wembley in front of a crowd of 55,349. It was then sponsored by Auto Windscreens.
Since those heady days the competition has had its ups and downs. In the year 2000 eight clubs from the Football Conference were invited to compete, but in 2006 this stopped. In 2016-17 it was renamed the EFL Trophy and Premier League and Championship clubs with Category 1 academies were included. The inclusion of those teams was voted in by EFL clubs but has been unpopular with most supporters of clubs in Leagues 1 and 2, to such an extent that some fans have boycotted the tournament as a form of protest.
However, despite the sparse attendances that typify the earlier stages of the competition it still maintains some status. Last season saw Coventry City win it by beating Oxford United 2-1 in front of a crowd of 74,434.
However, with 46 league games and the League Cup and FA Cup to compete in, were Wigan Athletic really interested in winning the EFL Trophy this season? The clear priority for Latics is promotion back to the Championship division, so how does the club view the Checkatrade Trophy?
Jonathan Jackson provided some perspective on the matter prior to the Accrington match. He stated that it was a much-maligned competition, but added that: “Within football, it’s seen as a great way of getting young players out there on to the pitch. Other than this competition, it’s very difficult to get young players into a competitive environment”. Jackson also revealed that there is a financial benefit for competing EFL clubs, through the prize money.
According to an article in the Coventry Telegraph in February 2017, the prize money for winning a group stage match was £10,000, with £5,000 for a draw. With the prize money increasing in later rounds Coventry City would have received around £400,000 in their winning the trophy.
Looking at Paul Cook’s decision from a pragmatic angle it appears that Latics will have made a small profit from their participation in the Checkatrade Trophy this season, even allowing for a fine in the region of £5,000. Although the Accrington game proved far from ideal for the development of young players, the previous games provided opportunities for youth, backed up by the presence of senior squad players.
Cook’s decision to field such a young and inexperienced team on Tuesday night was certainly controversial. Moreover, the postponement of Saturday’s fixture at Rochdale did not go down well with so many fans. However, the absence of the current second and third choice goalkeepers on international duty this weekend would surely have been an issue.
Only time will tell whether Cook giving his senior squad players a break of a fortnight between games will produce the result he seeks.
It is indeed a long season ahead.