John Coleman masterminded a 5-0 win over the Foxes’ Under 21s on Tuesday night, adding to the 5-2 thumping of the Reds’ 21s two years ago and last season’s 7-0 rout of Leeds’ youngsters.
When it was the turn of the Whites to visit the Wham Stadium, they actually sent what was in essence an Under 18 squad, made up of 15, 16 and 17-year-olds, so while the scoreline was sobering, the result was perhaps predictable.
Coleman’s post-game interviews from both the win over Leeds and this week’s victory against Leicester contained notes of sympathy, insisting it was ‘unfair’ to judge the outmuscled, inexperienced youngsters on those games.
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When the Under 21 sides of invited Premier League and Championship clubs first entered the EFL Trophy the move was lambasted by critics who felt it cheapened the competition and worried it was a precursor to top-flight B teams invading the league.
For clubs and players in Leagues One and Two, the trip to Wembley offered by the Trophy made it special.
Two years after former Leeds player John Sheridan led his Chesterfield side to a final win over Swindon in front of almost 50,000, current Whites captain Liam Cooper visited Wembley as part of a Spireites side that lost out to Peterborough United.
Goalkeeper Tommy Lee played in both games for Chesterfield and spoke on behalf of many players and supporters the country over when the idea of Premier League Under 21 involvement was first floated.
“It’s a tournament that is close to my heart so you can imagine the antipathy that came over me when I read the news,” he said.
“Introducing Premier League ‘B’ teams would compromise the competition’s integrity and devalue any success achieved.”
There were boycotts and low turnouts in the 2016/17 season and after that ‘trial’ the Trophy was revamped again, with £1m in extra prize money stumped up by the Premier League to sweeten the deal for EFL clubs who were guaranteed home games against Under 21 sides.
The great idea behind it all was to help foster English talent, giving them experiences thought to be more beneficial than reserve football.
Four years on from the revamp, opposition is no more than a low grumble – Bolton boss Ian Evatt admitted he was ‘not a fan’ this week – but the benefit to English talent development is impossible to gauge. It’s also difficult to argue there is an appetite among fans for games involving academy sides. Accrington Stanley confirmed an attendance of 885 against Leicester, their managing director later tweeted that 877 were Accrington fans. Just 732 attended Leeds’ 3-2 win at Oldham Athletic’s Boundary Park, with 108 making the trip from Leeds.
That win was the Whites’ first since re-entering the competition and it took a side more closely resembling Mark Jackson’s Under 23s to pull it off. In general, Premier League clubs have not fared well in the Trophy.
In the latest round of fixtures Harrogate beat Newcastle, Shrewsbury overcame Wolves, Bolton bettered Liverpool and West Ham United lost to Colchester. Of this season’s Under 21 entrants, only Aston Villa currently sit top of a group. Last season only Leicester made it out of the second round, before losing to Tranmere and since the 2016/17 season, EFL clubs have made up every single semi-final.
Marcelo Bielsa is, as yet, undecided on the merits of Under 21 teams playing in the Trophy, but he is certain there is a benefit for the youngsters. “I will need more time to go past to evaluate the effects of young players being in this competition,” he said. “For the players who don’t yet play in the first team, it is always positive to play against players who are older than them.”
The 7-0 thrashing by Accrington will never be a memory the beaten Leeds teenagers cherish but footballers get better by playing football and each game is a chance to learn. They’ll also never have to ask ‘Accrington Stanley – who are they?’
This season, the Trophy has allowed Sean McGurk to shine and eased 15-year-old Archie Gray into the public eye. Leeds considered not identifying him on the team-sheet due to his age, but when your lineage can be traced back to a Whites legend, word will always get out.
The final group game at Salford City on November 2 will be an education in the cross-Pennine animosity for whoever Jackson is able to field and a win will take them further in the competition, bringing more game time and more learning. There is, obviously, some merit for Leeds and their young players as individuals, in their Trophy involvement.
What it does for the competition itself and EFL clubs is another matter. If the day ever arrives when a place at Wembley is taken by Premier League teenagers, the fierce opposition of 2016 would be rekindled.
Perhaps the pervading feeling is that the Trophy is what it is, the horse has bolted and there’s nothing else to do but get on with the business of dishing out one-sided beatings to teenagers in front of low crowds. But if the EFL can tolerate this, who knows what will be next?