Is this the year a team of Premier League kids wins the EFL Trophy?
When, in 2016, the Football League invited Premier League clubs to enter B teams in the EFL Trophy, lower-league sides felt they could distort the competition.
Although Portsmouth beat Sunderland in front of an all-time record crowd of 85,021 in last year’s Wembley showpiece final, group-stage and early-round attendances have fallen in the three years that have passed since the EFL’s shock announcement.
Last year, just 202 spectators turned up to see Middlesbrough’s academy side take on Burton Albion in a record low for the competition, and on Tuesday night the Pirelli Stadium was again host to just 435 paying supporters as Everton’s Under-23s ran out 2-0 winners in Northern Group E.
Supporters of League One and League Two sides will only really get excited about the competition in the latter stages – a phenomenon illustrated by the fact Coventry City took over 40,000 fans to the 2018 final, while averaging less than 2,000 in the earlier rounds.
But how long must we wait for the EFL’s nightmare to be realised when a Premier League team reaches the final – or two – and the attendance for the televised spectacle is around the 12,000 mark?
The closest any top-flight academy side has come to getting to Wembley was in 2018 when Chelsea’s youngsters lost 4-2 on penalties to eventual winners Lincoln City in the semi-finals.
That team included the likes of England international Callum Hudson-Odoi, Wales star Ethan Ampadu and current first-team star Reece James, so the 9,444 who turned up weren’t short-changed by the quality on show.
Only two other Premier League teams have made it to the last eight of the competition, Swansea in 2016-17 and Manchester City last season, but this year’s crop look capable of going deep in the tournament, and maybe all the way.
Chong x Garner pic.twitter.com/8XZWI0LUJ4
— Fabio (@FabioProd) October 1, 2019
It is still early days although both Manchester City and Manchester United have won both their opening two games, while four other Premier League clubs currently sit atop their respective groups and have excellent chances of progressing.
Everton, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Brighton and West Ham are those in pole position, while Leicester City and Chelsea certainly have the squad depth to come through their sections.
The Foxes fielded an Under-21 side with six over-age players, three internationals and transfer fees worth around £45m, in their second-round win at Scunthorpe United two years ago and were roundly criticised for it.
But Premier League squads are huge and players need to get their games in, so don’t be surprised if you see some clubs go down the same route later on this season.