The Checkatrade Trophy returns this evening, as 48 teams from Sky Bet League One and League Two are joined by 16 Invited Clubs on their potential road to Wembley Stadium.
With three fixtures already completed in August, tonight marks the first tranche of fixtures to take place and the first chance for the majority supporters to see their team in action in the competition.
The format of the competition was changed ahead of the 2016/17 season to include 16 Invited teams from Clubs with Category One Academies.
Intended to rejuvenate the competition and assist in the development of the very best young players in English football, the Checkatrade Trophy has given a platform to deliver benefits to the national team and domestic league football at all levels.
On the introduction of Invited Clubs, EFL Chief Executive, Shaun Harvey, said: “Anything that is different is often viewed as being controversial, and what people tend to forget is that this competition was really struggling and ultimately attendances were on the decline. It was almost viewed by managers as one to win or one to get out of early.
“What is really important is to set the record straight as to what we were trying to achieve with the changes that took place in the Checkatrade Trophy, and to be absolutely clear the Checkatrade Trophy format is not a way of trying to introduce ‘B’ teams into the EFL.
“I believe it is hugely important that there is that clarity and that the Checkatrade Trophy, and what we’re trying to achieve, is judged on its own merit.
“We all believed bringing the Category One teams in was a way to reinvigorate the competition and addressing a fundamental issue in getting young players first-team opportunities.
There are potentially seven fixtures for each Club between now and the Checkatrade Trophy Final, to be held at the Wembley in March, with the support from the stands as important as the players to take to the pitch.
Harvey continued: “Fans are a massive part of actually helping the EFL achieve our objectives of creating genuine first-team opportunities in a first-team environment in the Checkatrade Trophy.
“It is absolutely key we appeal to supporters. The crowds were always less for this competition anyway, so we’re not suggesting they should match that of a league fixture, but any prejudices held can be put to the back of the room and fans can turn up and watch their team play.”
Lincoln City, the Checkatrade Trophy winners from 2017/18 and newcomers to Sky Bet League Two that season, achieved an average crowd of over 5,000 spectators in their road to the Final, whilst over 25,000 Imps made their way south for their Wembley date.
“We said we wanted young players to get the experience, and that includes players at our Clubs wanting to cut their teeth in professional football,”
Harvey continued: “If they’re not playing in front of a stadium with a decent crowd, it doesn’t replicate that atmosphere and experience we’re trying to create.
“Clubs took time to adjust to the format and wanted clarity as to what we were trying to achieve, but the key component of how successful this competition can be is the support of the fans.”
Alongside format changes, an enhanced prize fund was introduced with further alterations again made in 2017/18 to ensure the total prize money reached £3million.
The competition now has the financial benefit not only to those successful in reaching the latter stages, but all 48 Sky Bet League One and Two Clubs who enter the competition.
Benefiting from a prolonged period in the competition last year’s winners Lincoln City are in the process of building their very own elite performance centre, whilst Peterborough United improved their facilities with the completion of a new 3G pitch within their Academy.
“The Checkatrade Trophy, or the Johnstone’s Paint before that, winners have always benefited financially from the competition. What we’ve changed with this format is that all 48 Clubs actually benefit financially from competing.
“The focus, quite rightly, will be on the winners and the work Lincoln City have done in putting the money to good use for the long-term benefit of the Club is a great story and testament to what success in this competition can do.
“However, the other 47 Clubs in League One and League Two have also received financial rewards that they would have missed out on in previous years unless they progressed through the rounds,”
He added: “Everybody is a beneficiary now, which ultimately has led to Clubs believing this format is the way forward, and that is why it is so important supporters share the Clubs view and turn up on a Tuesday and Wednesday night to support their players of the future in this competition.”