Shaun Harvey confident revamped EFL Trophy can win over critics
English Football League boss Shaun Harvey has blamed a "perfect storm'' for the poor start to the revamped EFL Trophy but remains convinced it can win over its critics.
Open to clubs from Leagues One and Two, the competition was overhauled this summer to include a group stage featuring 16 reserve teams from clubs with "category one'' academies, with these invited Premier League and Championship clubs required to field six under-21 players.
With the final round of group games taking place on Tuesday and Wednesday, Harvey is hoping the negative headlines that dogged the start of the competition, now known as the Checkatrade Trophy, are left behind.
The 64 games played so far attracted an average gate of 1,328 fans, with several clubs breaking records for low attendances.
Speaking to PA Sport, the EFL chief executive said: "It's fair to say the trophy didn't get off on the right foot.
"I think that's because of the speed it was brought in, confusion in the media about the competition's criteria and objectives, and the fact that we have been, and still are, considering major changes to the league pyramid.
"These things came together to create a perfect storm for different people to look beyond what we were trying to achieve and to judge the competition against what they think our real motives were.''
His last point refers to what many fans believe is an attempt to introduce Premier League B teams into the EFL via the back door, leading to a boycott that has clearly affected attendances.
Harvey rejects these concerns but admits there is a "lack of trust'' around an issue that has existed since former Football Association chairman Greg Dyke floated the idea in 2014.
Since then, the EFL, FA and Premier League have announced they are exploring the first big shakeup of English football's structure since the advent of the Premier League in 1992 in a bid to alleviate fixture congestion, maximise the number of league games played at weekends, help clubs in European competition and clear space for a winter break.
However, Harvey said the prospect of B teams being introduced to a new fifth tier was taken off the table in September.
"So the thin end of the wedge doesn't exist because there's no wedge,'' he added.
"Okay, the communication of the objectives around [the Checkatrade Trophy changes] could have been done more effectively but I don't think that would have stopped the negative perceptions, purely because of concerns about why we were doing it.
"Hopefully, having removed those concerns, fans and media will now be able to take an alternative view and judge the competition, as we've asked, at the end.''
For Harvey, those objectives were revitalising a competition that was dying -- attendances last year were down a fifth on two seasons earlier -- increasing revenues and creating "more and better home-grown players.''
With the Premier League adding an extra £1 million, the prize fund was boosted to nearly £2m, a four-fold increase, and clubs from Leagues One and Two have already shared more money than they earned in the entire tournament last year.
The former Bradford City and Leeds United executive is also adamant the competition has delivered on its promise to bridge the gap between academy and senior football.
Pointing to the examples of Southampton full-back Sam McQueen's progress to the Premier League and 15-year-old Emeka Obi's move from Bury to Liverpool following debuts in the competition, Harvey said its "development merits cannot be questioned.''
He does, however, admit to being "disappointed with some of the crowds.''
The 46-year-old is hoping to see an improvement in gates this week as it will be the first time the invited clubs will be at home, although this will be tempered by the fact that several, including Chelsea, Middlesbrough and West Ham, are playing for pride having lost their first two games.
After this week, the competition is a straight knock-out all the way to a Wembley final on April 2, with Harvey certain crowds will grow with each round.
"In the past, some clubs gauged success in this competition as either going out in the first game or going all the way to Wembley,'' he added.
"Anything else was effectively a hindrance to league football.
"So let's see how things progress. All cup football takes on a different guise when it becomes a knockout competition.''