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Papa Johns Trophy

Papa Johns Trophy: A Springboard for Success

10 January 2023

Mason Mount, Declan Rice, Conor Gallagher and Bukayo Saka; just a selection of the current England crop who forged their way to international and top-flight careers via the Papa Johns Trophy.

Through the years, the EFL Trophy has so often been the start of the journey for a new wave of talent at all levels. A competition which is famed for discovering the next generation, the future is waiting to be uncovered in the here and now.

West Ham United skipper Rice had his first taste of professional football in the 2016/17 competition, when he captained the Hammers Under-23s before making the step up to the first team.

West Ham’s first-team coach Kevin Nolan has worked closely alongside the Academy to create a link to the senior squad, and the competition has allowed his players to progress.

“I’ve played a big part in our Under-21s and it’s a great competition,” he explains. “Being able to play proper games at proper stadiums and seeing the lads react to walking out to atmospheres, it gives you a good outlook as a coach to see where they’re at. It’s brilliant for those experiences.”

In 2018/19, Gallagher featured for Chelsea Under-21s against Newport County, and that same season saw Arsenal starlet Saka score his first professional goal against Portsmouth.

And the competition set the likes of Callum Hudson-Odoi and Reece James on their way to silverware, having both collected Champions League and Club World Cup winners’ medals at Chelsea.

Hudson-Odoi enjoyed tremendous success in the EFL Trophy, being named in the 2017/18 Team of the Tournament following his group stage exploits, having found the net four times, and that form saw him earn a Premier League debut before lifting the FA Cup in the same season.

Ex-Swansea City boss Garry Monk lifted the trophy with the Welsh side in 2006 as a player, and the 43-year-old highlighted some of the benefits in fostering the next generation.

"It’s been well documented, especially in recent years, that it exposes young players to what we call ‘real football’, which is men’s football,” he notes.

“This competition is a chance to play against experienced professionals at Football Clubs on a stage where you go through rounds to get to the next round and then the potential of getting to a final. It’s huge for young players.”

Last season, 106 debuts were made in the competition and that trend has continued this term. Jack Shorrock became the youngest-ever player to feature for Port Vale at 15 years and 145 days old, with the youngster making his debut in an emphatic 4-0 showing over Shrewsbury Town.


Meanwhile, Northampton Town starlet Josh Tomlinson broke Ivan Toney’s record as the youngest teenager to find the back of the net for the Cobblers in October.

Tomlinson, who was just 15 when he made his first-team bow for the Club, was on the pitch for just eight minutes before opening his account for Northampton against Arsenal Under-21s in Southern Group H. And despite the scoreline, slipping to a 3-1 defeat, it was a night to remember for the young midfielder, who took the mantle from England international Toney.

Elsewhere, exciting Barnsley prospect Fabio Jalo bagged a brace in a 4-2 victory over Doncaster Rovers before establishing himself in Sky Bet League One matchday squads, while Shrewsbury Town’s Travis Hernes was handed a call-up for Norway Under-18s after scoring on his professional debut against Wolverhampton Wanderers Under-21s.

Plymouth Argyle’s talented teenagers have also benefited from opportunities in this season’s competition, with Academy trio Oscar Halls, Caleb Roberts and Will Jenkins-Davies all getting on the scoresheet during their run to the latter stages.

Current Portsmouth boss Danny Cowley, who previously led Lincoln City to victory in the competition, has long been an advocate for the Papa Johns Trophy, saying: “It’s a great opportunity for the big Clubs to play some of their younger players in a competitive game, and it’s great for the League One and League Two Clubs and their younger players, too.

“I love being a part of the competition, not only being involved in it as a manager but scouting and seeing players in a competitive environment. It gives you real context as to where those players are when you’re looking at recruitment.”

And at the end of the rainbow sits the biggest stage of all: the home of football, Wembley Stadium.

In 2019, Portsmouth and Sunderland attracted the largest- ever attendance for an EFL Trophy Final. Over 85,000 Pompey and Black Cats fans flocked to the capital – Wembley awash with a sea of blue and red – to see Portsmouth eventually triumph in a penalty shoot-out to lift the trophy, breaking a three-decade old record set in 1988.

This season, a cumulative attendance of 62,281 across 30 Papa Johns Trophy fixtures marked the highest seen in the first round of the Group Stage since the competition was reformatted in 2016/17.

Three ties attracted crowds of over 5,000, with the Yorkshire derby between Bradford City and Sheffield Wednesday in Northern Group H peaking at over 6,092. The Owls also travelled in record numbers, taking the biggest away crowd to an EFL Trophy game with 3,355 making the trip across the M62.

At the time of wrtiting, Bolton Wanderers are among the remaining teams vying for a trip to the capital this year, with Ian Evatt’s side booking their place in the knock-out stages, and the Trotters boss is eager to make more memories with Bolton.

“Any time you get a chance to play a cup final at Wembley, you should try and take it with both hands because those are the moments in your football career that you remember,” he said, speaking during the Group Stage.

On the other hand, several teams have felt the financial betterment of the competition, putting prize money towards various uses to benefit the community on a wider scale.

In 2018, Lincoln triumphed over Shrewsbury in the Final at Wembley and the Imps put the funds towards the Club’s new training facility, using the money – coupled with an impressive FA Cup run – to build the Soper of Lincoln Elite Performance Centre, having previously been housed at their LNER Stadium.

Similarly, Peterborough United’s run to the Quarter-Final of the EFL Trophy in 2018/19 funded improvements to facilities and the completion of a new 3G pitch at their Academy at the time.

Speaking on the boost that the money gave the Club, former Posh Chief Executive Bob Symns explained: “The prize money received through victories in the opening rounds of the Trophy has been really important to us.

“We’ve put the funds towards facilities at the Mick George Training Academy, as well as the purchase of additional medical equipment for use on matchdays. We have also been able to improve some of our catering provisions at the stadium, which I know our supporters have felt the benefit of.”

Meanwhile, Forest Green Rovers’ funds contributed towards installing new kitchen equipment in their main stand, as well as upgrading catering facilities in the other three stands at the stadium.

More recently, newly promoted Sutton United reached the Final at the first time of asking, giving the South Londoners a boost on and off the pitch.

And this year, a host of Clubs will reap the rewards of the Papa Johns Trophy – a competition which means a whole lot more to its Clubs.

This feature originally appeared in the Winter 2022 edition of the EFL Magazine.

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