On Tuesday the 4th of December, St James’ Park staged the EFL Trophy clash between Newcastle United U21’s and Macclesfield Town. The match was witnessed by a threadbare crowd of 1126 people, which meant that the famous old ground was only 2.15% full.
The EFL have suggested that the competition benefits both professional and youth teams, with the former getting the chance to take to the pitch at Premier League grounds such as St James’, and the latter being given valuable opportunities to develop their game against professional sides.
Shaun Harvey, the chief executive of the EFL, has stated that the “history of the EFL Trophy is one of new ideas and innovation, but at its heart has always been the belief that this is an opportunity for League One and League Two clubs to taste cup success”, but this seems like empty rhetoric. If cup success is bowing out against a youth side in a virtually empty stadium, then Macclesfield have been more than successful, but in reality this game was one that was unlikely to offer any feelings of accomplishment.
The notion that this tournament has a positive impact on youth sides is also somewhat exaggerated. Whilst they may be appearing against professional sides, it seems that most of these teams fail to prescribe the same levels of significance to EFL Trophy games as they might a league encounter. As such, rather than supporting “the development and progression of young players” as Harvey asserts, these games are more like friendly encounters. It would be far more beneficial for a young player to taste lower league action in games that have significance and clout, allowing these players to experience the feelings of pressure that accompany playing in front of passionate crowds. As it stands, games against the likes of Macclesfield in empty stadiums offer little opportunity for progress and fail to illicit much in the way of excitement.
After the encounter at St James’ finished 1-1 many began to leave, despite the prospect of the forthcoming penalty shootout. Either people didn’t know this was happening or they simply didn’t care, but it suggests that these games are little more than a distraction from meaningful competitions.
It is perhaps fitting that the only game to attract a good attendance, the clash between Port Vale and Stoke City U21’s that saw 7940 people attend, was marred by Stoke fans launching projectiles at players and leaving the away end toilets looking as though a grenade had been let off. It seemed as though a section of Stoke fans had used to game as an opportunity to damage the ground of their local rivals, and that says a lot about the view many fans hold of this tournament.
The EFL Trophy has routinely produced miniscule attendances, and anomalies such as the Port Vale game cannot be attributed to anyone actually taking the tournament seriously. In its previous incarnations the EFL Trophy may not have been resoundingly popular but the EFL have driven it into the ground further than anyone might have imagined, and wholesale changes are required if they expect views surrounding the EFL Trophy to change at any point in the future.