During the Football Leagues annual conference, their members voted in favour of including Premier League (EPL) U21 sides into the Football League Trophy (formerly Johnstones Paint Trophy) for a trial year for the 2016/17 season. This means that the competition usually reserved for clubs within League One and Two will now be extending to include 16 category one academies. This will increase the tournament to 64 teams, with the introduction of regional group stages before the knockout rounds.
Supporters of the lower leagues have vented their disapproval at the trial, with many saying they will boycott games. The frustration felt by fans comes from the belief that the Football League has given into the financial power of the Premier League. With the prize fund being substantially increased by £1million given by the EPL, which will now allow for win bonuses, it is understandable why fans feel this way.
For years now there have been calls from the top tier of English football that their academy players need to play regular competitive football. This has seen the old reserve league format be replaced by the current U21 development sides. But yet this still hasn’t proved enough and the notion of a B team system being introduced into the lower leagues has periodically been suggested.
Before the announcement of the inclusion of academy teams into the Football League Trophy, the Football League made proposed a radical change to the league structure. By the 2019/20 season they want to implement a new league into the current system, seeing three football leagues with 20 teams in each. Increasing the professional teams to 100 would result in a number of positives for the game as a whole according to Shaun Harvey, the Chief Executive of the Football League. These positives include more games on the weekday, removal of fixture congestion and an increase of money for clubs.
Under these proposals, there is space for 8 new clubs within the lower league structure. Harvey has suggested that the logical move would be to promote these clubs from the National League, should they agree. This would be brilliant for the Non-League world as it would offer a number of teams the chance to realise the dream of league football. However, he has also suggested that both Rangers and Celtic could be included. He has quickly denied that Premier B teams could make up the team shortfalls, but in light of the changes to the Football League Trophy does this denial really mean B teams won’t appear in the lower leagues.
Although the lower league members have always rejected the inclusion of B teams within their leagues, they have now allowed them into their cup competition with the incentive of an increased prize fund. An extra division has major benefits for Premier League teams. The change to increase weekend matches would mean the week nights could be used for FA ties which would release more dates for Premier League games, ultimately this means there could be a winter break. Giving top teams a short break in the winter could improve their chances in European competitions, as well as England’s international chances. With advantages such as this to the EPL, it is conceivable that they will offer large amounts of money to make sure the restructuring happens. The financial assistance could then potentially come with the condition of some or all of the extra 8 places going to Premier U21/B teams.
As much as Harvey has stated Premier B teams won’t be included, money talks as their £1million has shown with the Football League Trophy. If a good financial package is offered for Premier B teams’ participation in the lower league, which benefits its members, it will be hard for the Football League to turn down. The benefits of U21 sides playing within League One, Two or the potentially newly created League Three, are obvious although their introduction could be very detrimental to the teams within that league. Should this happen, fans would no doubt feel cheated by their clubs and the English game could once again be ignoring its grassroots for the benefit of the financially strong.
The possibility of Premier B teams being in the lower leagues is just that, a possibility. It may never happen. But where once there was strong disapproval to such a suggestion, the inclusion of Premier League U21 sides into the Football Leagues’ cup competition could have potentially opened the door to seeing them play within the league pyramid. Were this to happen it would be catastrophic for both teams in the lower and non league.