Have Academy Teams in the Football League Trophy Worked?

This Sunday, Wycombe and Peterborough will line up under the iconic Wembley arch in what will be the eighth final since the introduction of academy teams.

The Bristol Street Motors Trophy, the JPT, the Pizza Cup, whatever you want to call it, the Football League Trophy is a staple of the football calendar in League One and League Two, but for the best part of a decade now, attendances have taken a pummeling, and fans appear to care about it less each year.


The big turning point for the competition was the inclusion of Premier League and Championship U21 and U23 sides in 2016. The addition of 16 teams to the trophy changed the format of the cup, with a group stage being added, with 16 groups, each consisting of three league teams and an academy side battling it out for a place in the knockout stages.


This Sunday, Wycombe and Peterborough will line up under the iconic Wembley arch in what will be the eighth final since the introduction of academy teams. With that in mind, let’s take a look at whether this has been a success and whether or not the competition is ever likely to become popular again.




The initial announcement of U23 teams joining the competition was met with backlash from fans, with many calling for boycotts. The bulk of fans stuck to their words, with the average attendance of games in the trophy taking a serious hit.


Pre-2016, the competition would average around 4,000-5,000 for games, hitting a high of 6,292 in 2010. While the later stages definitely inflate these figures a bit, for many fans, the competition was taken seriously, and it also provided a chance to maybe snatch a victory over a rival from the other league that you hadn’t played in some time.


Let’s examine this on a more individual level. I’ve chosen a team at random, Port Vale, and have looked at their home attendance in the competition. They break down as follows:

  • 2012/13: 2,744

  • 2013/14: 2,581

  • 2014/15: N/A (Knocked out away to Preston – 3,836)

  • 2015/16: 2,645

  • 2016/17: 1,111

  • 2017/18:1,037

  • 2018/19: 2,512 (7,940)

  • 2019/20: 914

As you can see, there is a clear drop-off after 2016/17. The anomaly in the mix is the 2017/18 season, where they drew a crowd of nearly 8,000 for a game with Stoke U23, a rare example of this competition serving up a fixture fans wanted.


What’s more depressing when looking at these numbers is that in the seasons prior to 2016, Vale had played the likes of Carlisle and Blackpool, teams with which they have no real connection, and they still drew respectable crowds. In the 2017/18 season, they had two local derbies with Crewe and Shrewsbury, games which should draw big numbers, even on a Tuesday night. The Shrewsbury game drew less than 1,000 fans, with just 965 turning out for it.


This was not an isolated incident, with fans regularly sharing posts of incredibly low attendances across the country. The record low is 202, which was in a game between Middlesborough U23 vs Burton in 2018. A shocking number that you would expect to find around the seventh-eighth tier of English football.


Has it been a success for the Academies?


This one is harder to quantify. Each year, 16 academies participate in the tournament, and there is no data available on how many of them have gone on to succeed.


One thing we can do, is look at how far they have advanced in the tournament and look at players that have helped teams progress. Chelsea U21s are the team that have gone the furthest. They were beaten by Lincoln City in 2017/18 on penalties, and their team from that day has some very notable names on it.


Trevor Chalobah, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Ethan Empadu, and Reece James all lined up at Sincil Bank that evening, and each has gone on to have a great career. However, how much the experience of playing in this tournament helped them remains to be seen.


There is just as strong an argument to be made that academy players benefit more from going on loan to teams instead. Of the four players mentioned above, three spent time out on loan, with two of them, Chalobah and James, playing in the Football League at Ipswich and Wigan, respectively.


Do Fans Want It?


While I can’t speak for all fans, the numbers tell a sorry story for the competition. The final will often pull a half-decent crowd, but ultimately, if you are a small club, you are not going to want to miss your club playing at Wembley.


We have also never witnessed an academy side reaching for the final. Would Everton fans really bother going down to London to watch their academy side take on Leyton Orient in the Bristol Street Motors final? I highly doubt it. The numbers would be alarmingly low and could really punish the other club, which would benefit from a bigger crowd and increased attention.


Ultimately, the change in format does not benefit the Football League teams at all. Fans do not want to attend games; it adds extra fixtures to the list (something Premier League managers regularly complain about), and it’s not really producing the big stars we were promised it would.


A return to the older days of bigger crowds feels highly unlikely, with many fans now seeing the tournament as an inconvenience until they reach the quarter-finals when the temptation of a trip to Wembley might pull a slightly bigger crowd.


Wycombe and Peterborough will no doubt put on a showcase of everything the Football League has to offer this weekend, as the final so often does, but it is time to reconsider this situation and try to breathe some life back into the tournament before it is too late.