Just 1,190 supporters braved the freezing conditions to witness Exeter City move to within 90 minutes of another Wembley appearance on Tuesday, writes Gareth Davies.
For an EFL Trophy quarter-final, a game with stakes that were supposedly so high, the crowd at St James’ Park was disappointing to put it lightly. But in a competition that is constantly pulled back and forth through the gutter by supporters and administrators, it was hardly surprising.
For years now, the EFL Trophy, which first started life off as the Associate Members Cup, has been ridiculed for its constant format changes. At the start of this century, we had National League sides enter the competition before this concept was scrapped.
There have been group stages, straight knock-outs, but perhaps the biggest cause of discontent is the inclusion of clubs further up the footballing food chain being allowed to enter their under-21 sides.
Since this much loathed tweak to entry criteria was introduced back in 2016, many crowds in the early rounds have failed to reach four figures. Nevertheless, the EFL, in a move that they hope will appease English football’s money men, they have continued the experiment longer than anyone expected. Despite this insistence that under-21 teams do have a place in the competition, its one trump card is a trip to Wembley for the two finalists.
With all the bells, whistles and obvious prestige that running out at the football’s most famous football stadium brings, crowds for every final over the past four seasons at the final have been positive. Last year, for example, as Portsmouth defeated Sunderland on penalties, close to 85,000 were in attendance. The first few rounds might not be taken seriously by some clubs, although a crowd of that size will tell you that the competition does in fact mean something
. The EFL Trophy being a priority is something that Exeter boss Matt Taylor was 100 per cent synchronous with and he was firm when questioned on the subject after his side, led by two goals from attacher Matt Jay and a single strike from Nicky Ajose, swept aside a lacklustre Stevenage outfit 3-0.
Speaking to The Independent at full-time, Taylor was asked just how he viewed the competition and the reply was surprisingly no-nonsense. “I’m not lying when I say it has been serious from the first game,” he remarked. “If people feel we change the team, or don’t take it seriously, they need to come and knock on my door.
“Every game we play at this football club is serious. Whether it’s for the young players, or the senior players, or we use it for game time with injuries, it’s always serious. The players are fully motivated, whoever we put on the pitch at the moment, I’m really pleased with that. “Some will feel they’re only a game away from Wembley but from my point of view, they’ve got a little bit closer to first-team reckoning.”
The reason Taylor’s stance raised eyebrows to the assembled throng of media that had gathered pitch side, was because Exeter’s aim this season, and they are very much on track to do it, is to win promotion back into League One after nearly a decade away. Wembley appearance or not, could the EFL Trophy prove to be a hindrance for Taylor and his troops? Not a chance and with a rye smile on his face, Taylor was defiant yet again.
He added: “It’s not hindered us so far. It’s only one more game and as we’ve shown, the squad has been big and strong enough, at the moment.
“If we’re hit with illness, injuries and suspensions then it could be one we don’t want, but we’re one game from Wembley. That is a fantastic opportunity for this group of players and this club. We know what’s at stake. We’ve put ourselves in a position of opportunity – let’s see how it goes.”
As the conversation moved on, despite the cold setting in a little more with every passing word, someone who was very much in the camp that should scrap the competition, I was slowly being turned round to Taylor’s way of thinking. Young players being given an opportunity, a test to see if they are cut out for the rigours of league football.
With reserve teams virtually extinct, the EFL Trophy now means that out of form players, those returning from injury, or someone who is simply out of form, trying to stake their claim, now have a platform to prove themselves. Quite how that can be considered a bad thing to clubs like Exeter, now becomes more apparent as to why it’s actually not. These were all points that Taylor was quick to make.
“Anyone who read the notice in the programme knows why it’s so important to us as a football club,” he said. “Joel Randall has got his opportunity on the back of this competition, Ben Seymour did last season and Archie Collins definitely so. We use it as a foundation to get more experience into our young players.
“As a manager, I can understand other people’s frustrations, but it’s an opportunity for us to get our players on that pitch.
“When you’ve got players who aren’t playing regularly on a Saturday, they get paid to play football, it’s another game and it’s what they want to do, it’s what they train all week for. A lot of those boys took their opportunities tonight.”
All that was left after Taylor, had managed to change my way of thinking to his, in less than five minutes, was to let the Grecians’ boss give his thoughts on who he would like in the last four. The draw was being made as this newspaper went to press so perhaps further fine tuning is still needed.
“We’ve been strong at home, and probably been lucky in that the last couple of rounds have been at home,” he mused. “It saves costs and time in terms of travelling because we’re a long way from a lot of places, but there’s some big teams left in the competition, who you want to test yourself against. If you want to be successful, you’ve got to go and win away from home.
“Whoever it is, we’re going go there with a little bit of confidence and play with a little bit of freedom. If it’s here, hopefully we can get as many fans through the turnstiles as we possibly can.
“They need to just get behind the lads, it won’t be perfect, there will be young boys on the pitch, a mixture, but they’ll be trying their best to get this club to Wembley.”