The crowds might suggest otherwise, but ahead of Pompey’s trip to Exeter there IS a point to the EFL Trophy – Simon Carter

Lower division supporters have been enthusiastically playing the game since the early 1980s. Tonight, Pompey fans have their chance to play it again.

Friday, 7th January 2022, 8:46 am
Danny Cowley lifts the EFL Trophy after Lincoln's victory over Shrewsbury in April 2018. Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images.

The rules of ‘Let’s laugh at the EFL Trophy attendance figures’ are very simple. You look at a tie, any tie will do providing it’s not the final, state the crowd and guffaw.

Just a few examples from this season. Forget the pandemic, even if we’d had the healthiest population of all time the crowd figures would be little different.

‘Crawley v Southampton U21s? 385 - farcical.’

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Pompey celebrate winning the Checkatrade Trophy at Wembley Stadium in March 2019. Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images.

‘Salford v Leeds U21s. 427’ - ridiculous. There have been bigger crowds at Baffins, Moneyfields, Fareham and Portchester in the Wessex League this season.’

‘Wycombe v Burton. 593 - what’s the point?’

‘Crewe v Wolves U21s. 598 - why bother allowing Academy teams to enter?’

‘Barrow v Leicester U21s. 575 - all this tournament does is clog up the fixture list.’

Portsmouth's John Marquis scores during the Blues' EFL Trophy semi-final win against Exeter in February 2020.

‘Forest Green v Brighton U21s. 604 - who cares about the EFL Trophy anyway?’

Tonight, Pompey travel to Exeter in the last of the Southern section second round ties. In those already played, Cambridge United (718, v Walsall), Sutton (770, v Stevenage) and Leyton Orient (990, v MK Dons) attracted the sort of sparse crowd the competition has forever been associated with outside of the latter stages.

It won’t be that bad tonight. Though taking place on a Friday in early January and at a time of Covid cases and self-isolations, Exeter’s attendance will almost certainly be in four figures. If it’s over 2,000, though, I’ll be very surprised. Only Ipswich, Sunderland and Sheffield Wednesday have pulled in over 2K in the second round so far, and their fans - given their clubs’ histories - are no doubt wondering what the hell they are doing watching a cup for third and fourth tier teams. Same for Pompey fans, I guess.

Even for the diehard supporters of any club, whatever their histories, whether they’re Portsmouth or Sutton, the EFL Trophy is a tough tournament to love.

Reece James played in the EFL Trophy for Chelsea in 2017/18 when they got to the semi-finals. Picture: Cive Mason/ Getty Images

Right from its inception in 1983/84, clubs have been split into north and south groups. Yet in that first season my club, Exeter, were drawn away in the second round of the southern section - at Wrexham. Thirty five miles from Liverpool. Not hugely southern really.

In 1992/93, the first season Exeter reached the southern area final - and, therefore, the cusp of a Wembley appearance - our two-legged opponents were Port Vale. Yep, a 400-mile round-trip. Not hugely southern either.

Back in the mid-80s, crowds at Football League matches were low, in all four divisions. In the aftermath of the Bradford and Heysel tragedies, vast swathes of former terrace regulars fell out of love with football. You really couldn’t blame them. Fans were either treated like animals, or behaved like them.

Against that backdrop, the EFL Trophy was never going to capture any sort of zeitgeist.

Portsmouth's Marcus Harness scores during the Blues' dramatic EFL Trophy semi-final win against Exeter in February 2020.

Organisers have tinkered with the structure a few times, to no huge effect. For six seasons in the early noughties, a handful of non-league clubs competed. That gave Woking the chance to beat former European Cup holders Nottingham Forest 3-2 in 2005/06, and less memorably gave Leigh Railway Mechanics Institute (‘Give us an ‘L’ …) the chance to attract a gathering of 300 for a tie against Scarborough.

In 2016 EFL officialdom achieved the seemingly impossible task of making the Trophy even more of a turn-off for lower division fans, by welcoming in Premier League Academy teams. They saw it - quite rightly - as the first step on a miserable path towards Premier League B clubs being allowed into the EFL.

Allowing Academy teams to compete has no doubt helped alienate thousands of diehard supporters. I have friends who are season ticket holders at Exeter, have been home and away regulars for years, decades. They happily boycott the EFL Trophy ties, and have told me they wouldn’t even go if Exeter reached the Wembley final.

I’m not amongst them; I’d happily go if Exeter got there. Why not? We don’t make a habit of reaching cup finals, apart from the Devon Professional Bowl.

Almost certainly, though, most clubs have fans with a similar attitude to some of my mates.

So, to repeat, who cares about the EFL Trophy anyway?

That question, regularly posed since the competition was first played in 1982/83, is easy to answer. More people than you think. Certainly more people than would admit it.

The EFL Trophy is not pointless, unlike the Under-21s teams representing Liverpool, Leicester and Newcastle in this season’s group campaign.

Just because vast swathes of supporters turn their backs on the competition, doesn’t mean it should go the same way as other now defunct pieces of silverware such as the Zenith Data Systems Cup, the ScreenSport Super Cup, the Anglo-Italian Cup, the Anglo-Scottish Cup and Watney Cups.

Just because Pompey could only attract 1,660 for their recent tie with Crystal Palace, isn’t reason in itself to bin the tournament currently known as the Papa John’s Trophy (and a catalogue of unsexy sponsors such as Leyland Daf Trucks, Auto Windscreens, Johnstone’s Paint, Checkatrade and Leasing.com have not, it must be highlighted, helped the cup’s PR down the years. ‘The Paint Pot Cup’ and ‘The Pizza Cup’ are not affectionate nicknames).

The tournament should serve a purpose, and it is this - to give the EFL clubs a chance to field their own youngsters, or ‘experienced’ players who need competitive minutes. So what if clubs make huge changes from their previous league game? Who’s counting, and why?

So what if the majority of Pompey fans don’t want to watch their club’s Academy prospects and first team bench regulars playing Sutton United or Crystal Palace’s kids? Danny Cowley’s not forcing anyone to go. But where’s the harm in allowing some youngsters competitive game time at Fratton Park under lights in front of a crowd?

Tens of thousands of Pompey fans saw the value in the Trophy three years ago, otherwise they wouldn’t have helped - along with Sunderland - to pack out Wembley. It was a great day: Wembley wins, at any level, in any competition, should be savoured. Unless you’re Manchester City, they don’t come around every year.

Cowley himself should realise the tournament’s worth; he guided Lincoln City to victory in 2017/18. The Imps had never been to Wembley before, so who would begrudge their fans - some no doubt having waited decades for the chance - a day out in the sunshine? If any Sincil Bank diehard didn’t want to go because Liverpool’s kids played in an earlier round, more fool them.

In that season’s semi-final, Lincoln beat Chelsea U21s on penalties. It remains the nearest any Academy side has got to reaching the final. Long may that be the case. Though I’m not against Academy teams competing in the Trophy, no doubt the elite’s argument for B teams in the EFL would increase if one of them actually lifted the silverware. A Chelsea U21 v Leeds U21 final in front of a sparse Wembley attendance would be a grim day for lower division football in England.

As an aside, it is interesting to note some of the names in that Chelsea U21 side from four years ago who played at Lincoln - Reece James, Ethan Ampadu, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Trevoh Chalobah.

James just didn’t magically appear in the Chelsea first team, and into the England senior squad, by magic; he came up through the youth ranks, and a handful of EFL Trophy games against lower division pros helps - literally - sort the men from the boys. All youngsters need to start playing against men at some stage in their careers, whether they play for Moneyfields or Chelsea. The EFL Trophy provides England’s future stars, like Reece James, with the opportunity to gain valuable experience of that.

Inevitably, as this is the way of football these days, some Pompey fans will chorus ‘now we can concentrate on the league’ if their side loses at Exeter. Equally, so will some of the home supporters. But I want my side to win, I want to move a step close to Wembley. Surely a final appearance would be great for confidence, for financial reasons. And that goes for any club.

I’ve seen Exeter in four Trophy semis and we’ve lost the lot. I was in the away end at Fratton Park two years ago when we conspired to lose 3-2 after leading 2-1 in the last minute. That hurt, but in truth no more painful than the first leg of the Southern area final in 1999/2000 at Bristol City.

On that fateful night, Exeter had three players sent off. And our new striker was carried off with a serious injury. And we got drubbed 4-0. We weren’t going to pull that back in the second leg so - hurrah! - were now free to concentrate on the league. We finished fourth bottom of what is now League 2 …