Before the 2016/17 it was announced that 16 academies would join League 1 and 2 sides in a revamped EFL Trophy. A decision that was far from unanimous but the incentive of an extra £1m in prize money added by the Premier League won out.
It provoked a successful boycott campaign from fans of EFL sides with games involving u21 sides attracting pitiful crowds.
This season there were only 525 at Moss Rose for Macclesfield Town game against Newcastle United u21s.
When the new format was announced EFL Chief Executive Shaun Harvey claimed it would “assist the development of the very best young players in English football.”
This claim now seems dubious at best. Instead, it’s shown time-after-time that rather than playing more academy football; escaping the bubble can be the making of a young footballer.
Oli McBurnie, with his low socks and big beard, now cuts a distinctive figure in the Sheffield United side after his £20m move in the Summer from Swansea City.
While at the Swans the Scot played a key role in their u21 side who reached the quarter-finals of the EFL Trophy in the 2016/17 season.
He scored five goals in four games including two against Wolves u21s and one against Norwich u21s meaning he only played against two EFL clubs. In that season the forward also featured six times for the first team.
The untrained eye could see that as experience in the EFL Trophy helping to clear the path to the first team.
However, McBurnie sees his loan at Barnsley the following season as more important. Signing in January 2018 he went on to score nine goals in 17 Championship games earning him the Tykes’ Player of the Year award.
It was the league football where he felt part of a team and where results mattered that really kicked McBurnie on.
The following season at Swansea McBurnie wore the number 9 shirt and continued his Barnsley form netting 24 goals in 45 games leading the Blades to pay £20m for the 23-year-olds services.
Speaking to The Guardian in October of last year McBurnie explained the importance of his spell at Barnsley “I wouldn’t be where I am now if it wasn’t for Barnsley. Before Barnsley, it had been stop-start at Swansea. I was involved; I was back down with the under-23s; I was on the bench. I never really got going.
Barnsley gave me the platform to be playing first-team football… because of that, Swansea then trusted me to be the no.1 striker”
It’s a similar story for Reece James, the versatile Chelsea player who can operate along the defensive line and in defensive midfield.
In the 2017/18 season, Chelsea u21s reached the semi-finals of the EFL trophy losing on penalties to eventual winners Lincoln City with James starting six of the seven games in their impressive run.
However, it wasn’t these performances that put the England youth international into Frank Lampard’s plans but displays on loan in the Championship.
Last season James went on loan to Wigan who were battling to survive in the second tier. James’ father, a former professional who now runs an elite coaching facility, wanted his son to go to an old school club to see if he could survive on his own outside the comfort of a top-flight academy.
It was the making of James. Speaking to The Independent the 19-year-old said the reality of professional football hit him on his first day at Wigan “Suddenly I’m playing with people who have got kids and families.”
His personal goal was to make 15 appearances for the Latics. Instead, he ended up with the club’s Player of the Year, Players’ Player of the Year and Goal of the Season awards as well as being named in the Championship Team of the Season.
James said of his spell “It’s given me so much more confidence… When we were fighting relegation, losing three, four, five games on the bounce, it was tough to take. I don’t think there are many players who’ve got the advantage of having that same experience.”
Like McBurnie, it was escaping the bubble of academy football and experiencing first-team league football that was the making of James.
Callum Hudson-Odoi offers a different example, with the winger never leaving Stamford Bridge on loan.
Like James, he played six games for the Chelsea u21 side that reached the semi-final of the EFL Trophy in 2017/18. Hudson-Odoi scored four goals in his first three games and was even named in the team of the tournament.
The 18-year-old, like McBurnie and James, didn’t see the competition as key in his development.
Unlike those two, he didn’t leave on loan but had his academy football bubble burst at the 2017 European Under-17 Championships and the 2017 Under-17 World Cup.
He started every game as England finished runners up in the Euros netting two goals in the process, including the opening goal in the final that the Three Lions eventually lost to Spain on penalties. Hudson-Odoi was even named in the team of the tournament.
England went one better at the World Cup in India this time beating Spain 5-2 in the final. The winger featured in every game for his country and played the full 90 minutes in the final.
Speaking to The Independent Hudson-Odoi sees this as a big moment in his development: “That was a big step up for me. Being away from home for a month was really difficult. I’d never been away for that long before. It really helped to boost my confidence. Representing England in front of 60,000 people, every time I went on the pitch and looked around it felt like a dream.”
Academy football is a bubble and the move to get academy sides facing EFL opposition was an attempt to burst it and make young players kick on. However, it’s proved that the methadone that is the competition is no replacement for the heroin of League and major tournament football where young players are forced to grow up.