The Papa Johns Trophy continues to provide opportunities for young players to get a taste of competitive senior football.
Several current Premier League and international players have featured in the competition early in their careers, with the likes of Reece James, Mason Mount, Declan Rice and Bukayo Saka, to name a few, gaining experience before developing into world-renowned stars.
This year has seen the emergence of more promising talents, with Aston Villa Under-21s striker Cameron Archer being the standout player in the Group Stage, winning Player of the Round after scoring six goals in three games, including a hat-trick against Burton Albion.
“Personally, it was really nice to receive that recognition, although from a team perspective, it was obviously disappointing that we weren’t able to beat Charlton in the next round,” admits the 20-year-old.
“Each game, I just aimed to help the team and get on the scoresheet. As a striker, scoring goals is what I aim to do – it’s the best feeling in football. I think I was just in the right place at the right time for most of the goals, because a lot were one or two-touch finishes, which is something I’ve been working on.
“Every time you step on the football pitch, you’re trying to show what you can do and help the team win. This competition has given a lot of players opportunities to learn and develop, so it’s one we all took seriously.
“Playing against senior players and having a competitive edge to every game is different to what you’re used to when playing Academy football. I think it plays a very important role for young players in giving you experience of that kind of environment, so that when you progress into the first team or go out on loan, you’re better prepared for that level of intensity.”
Archer’s impact in the competition saw him progress into the first-team reckoning at Villa, being handed his Premier League debut at Old Trafford during a 1-0 victory over Manchester United before further outings as a substitute against Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton.
The England Under-20 international was then sent out on loan to Sky Bet Championship side Preston North End in January, which has proved to be a fruitful move, with Archer making an instant impact for the Lilywhites, netting on his debut at West Bromwich Albion.
He adds: “My first experience of playing against EFL teams came in this Trophy a couple of years ago and it’s been really good for my development. You’re coming up against seasoned professionals, so you need to think quicker, run harder and try to compete physically.
“It also teaches you to have a winning mentality because if you lose, you’re either in a worse position in the group or you’re out of the competition altogether. I’ve taken what I’ve learned in those games and used it to help me settle at Preston.
“It’s not easy coming into a new team and a new League, but Preston are a good Club and I love playing for them. At the start of the season, if you had’ve told me I’d be in the position I am now, I’d probably have laughed. I’ve come a long way and I’ve just tried to keep my head down, work hard and continue to impress.”
Archer isn’t the only youngster to thrive in the Papa Johns Trophy this season.
Huddersfield Town’s Matty Daly contributed five goals from midfield while on loan at Hartlepool United, prompting many Pools supporters to rename the competition the ‘Matty Daly Trophy’.
Elsewhere, Wigan Athletic handed competitive experience to a number of their younger talents, with Divin Baningime making the most notable impact by notching the goal that sent the Latics through to the Semi-Finals.
And another bright prospect to flourish this campaign is Charlton Athletic starlet Mason Burstow. The 18-year-old earned his senior bow in their Group Stage opener against Crawley Town in August and wasted no time in introducing himself to The Valley faithful, finding the net with his first touch after coming off the bench.
“It was a surreal feeling to come onto the pitch and make my debut,” he reminisces. “My whole youth career had built up to that moment, so I was over the moon that I was able to show what I can do with my very first touch. It was a dream come true.
“I knew at the start of the season that the Papa Johns Trophy was a competition I wanted to play a part in, as I know there are some big names that have started off in this competition. Fortunately, I was able to play in all our games and really show what I’m capable of, so I hope I can follow that kind of career pathway to the top.”
Burstow found the net on three occasions as the Addicks reached the Quarter-Final stage, and he believes the experience gained in the competition was pivotal in earning a role in Johnnie Jackson’s first-team squad, as well as encouraging World Champions Chelsea to swoop for his services during the January transfer window.
He continues: “The competition provides such a great platform for young players, like myself, to show that we’re ready to play first-team football.
“It’s crucial for our development that we’re exposed to the professional game, because it’s a lot more physical, better technically and every game has something riding on it.
“Having the chance to show the Manager how effective you can be for the team in a competitive tournament, while playing with and against experienced players, is a great stage to start your career.
“After I scored on my debut, it led to more involvement in other competitions. I’ve now played over 15 games in League One based off that one opportunity against Crawley, and I’m really proud of what I’ve achieved so far.”
Up and down the country, the Papa Johns Trophy continues to serve as a breeding ground for future stars.