This week sees the start of the EFL (or more correctly the Checkatrade) Trophy fixtures. The Football League, in its wisdom, chose to restructure and rebrand from the 2016-17 season with the EFL Trophy being one of the outcomes of that exercise.
The competition (formerly the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy) has a new ‘pilot’ format with 64 entries made up of EFL League One and Two clubs, plus an additional 16 Category 1 Premier League and Championship academy/under-21 sides. More significantly, member clubs will vote on an expansion of the current format of three divisions of 24 clubs each to four divisions of 20 clubs at the 2017 AGM, with the changes, if agreed, to be implemented for the 2019-20 season.
The Football League retained the same branding and logo for its first 100 years, altering the logo for the centenary season and again in 2004. However, the most recent rebranding is more significant as it involves not just a new logo but a new identity. ‘The Football League’ is a title that was adopted principally because it was the first organisation of its kind. The clear implication is that it is the first and most important of its kind.
Why then change the title to The English Football League and lose that sense of history and uniqueness? According to Ben Wright, the League’s commercial director, the change is because “The three-letter brand name is designed to suit both the smaller screens of mobile devices and social-media’s hashtags, while the emphasis on ‘English’ is intended to give it a greater global appeal; it's argued that the Football League moniker isn't necessarily enough to clearly identify it in overseas markets.” (www.campaignlive.co.uk)
The acceptance of 16 Premier League and Championship academy/U21 sides into the EFL Trophy for 2016-17 is a major and not necessarily progressive change. Billed as ‘innovation’, a phrase that is not always a good thing, first impressions are that this is a half baked solution to a problem that never existed in the first place and one that pleases no one. Many Premier League clubs have already opted out. If it was hoped that the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal might take part then this was a bit optimistic. All three have declined. Their replacements include Blackburn Rovers and Brighton.
There has for some years been lobbying from some Premier League clubs to allow reserve teams to compete in senior football. The Football League, looking for ‘innovation’ and perhaps some crumbs from the Premier League table has taken the initiative when there was little interest elsewhere for change. I cannot see any winners here. The academy teams are unlikely to prove an attraction at the gate, particularly as the fixtures are due to be played during the international breaks, and so many of the best young players will be absent on international duty. With all due respect to them, it is unlikely that Brighton’s academy team will draw in the crowds when they visit Southend and Stevenage.
Of significance is the fact that while clubs were consulted, one of the key stakeholders in the football industry, the fans, were not. A successful restructuring and/or rebranding of any business is best carried out after consultation with all relevant stakeholders, something the Football League seems to have forgotten.
The two changes proposed for 2016-17 amount to a denial of heritage and tradition. By changing the name to The English Football League, the League has effectively stated it no longer regards itself as being the original and most important competition. The acceptance of U21 teams into the new EFL Trophy is a further denial of the past. One of the key principles of the Football League has been that it is for first teams only, a rule that has been enforced consistently.
Football’s organising bodies need to recognise the opinions of ordinary fans, who care passionately about the heritage of the game, rather than introduce ill-thought out restructuring to attract commercial income from abroad. The commercial possibilities for clubs like Accrington Stanley lie principally within their own community in East Lancashire. How will they benefit from a rebranding that attracts social media followers across the world?
A version of this article appeared as the editorial in issue 38 of Soccer History magazine and is available as a download from www.soccer-history.co.uk.