There's no denying it: the Football League Trophy is not the most prominent competition in English football. You would be forgiven for not knowing the outcome of the latest round of games, given that it has been thoroughly eclipsed in the sporting media by coverage of the end of the 2016 winter transfer window and the news that English clubs have managed to break their own lofty record by spending a staggering £1 billion in transfer fees since the start of the current season.
As low-key as it may seem and neglected as it largely is by sports editors, true aficionados and the cognoscenti know that the Football League Trophy is in fact an absorbing and exciting contest. It is also the perfect antidote to the sometimes depressing spectacle of the high-priced Premier League soap opera and the systematic devaluation of the once hallowed FA Cup by the biggest clubs as they increasingly focus on more lucrative tournaments. Here we look at some of the facts and figures surrounding this elusive and under-rated competition which, in many ways, reflects the traditions and values of the English game more accurately than its glitzier sibling competitions:
What is it?
The Football League Trophy, currently named the "Johnstone's Paint Trophy" reflecting its long term sponsors, is an annual association football knock-out competition which is open to each of the 48 clubs currently placed in Football Leagues One and Two, the latter being the third and fourth tiers respectively of the English Football League. While Scottish teams are excluded and have their own comparable competition, Welsh teams which play in the relevant divisions of the English league are represented.
When did it start?
The inaugural competition took place in the 1983–84 season, at that time called the "Associate Members' Cup”. However, following seismic changes to the structure of the English game in 1992, it was renamed the "Football League Trophy" to reflect the lower-division clubs finally becoming full members of the Football League. It has been a sponsored competition since its second year, with Johnstone's Paint recently celebrating ten years as the event's title sponsor.
Why did it start?
There is some debate as to the rationale for this competition's introduction. The main reason cited, however, is that it presented an opportunity for lower league clubs to have a realistic shot at winning something. Another key consideration was that hard-pressed small clubs would have the chance to increase revenues through the extra match days and prize money.
What is its format?
The first draw is made early in the season, usually in August. It initially runs as two parallel North and South section competitions and the winners of these challenges meet in a final. This is held in March or April, traditionally at Wembley, although during the rebuilding of the national stadium it was held at Cardiff's magnificent Millennium Stadium.
Organisers decided on the North/South format of the contest because it was felt that limiting the distances to be travelled by teams and supporters would help to limit costs. It would also enable fans to attend away games and make the event more accessible to young fans and families. The games are held on days and at times when higher profile matches are unlikely to be taking place. This is calculated, in part, to encourage fans of the bigger teams to attend ties involving their smaller local teams.
There have been small adjustments over the years. For example, on a couple of occasions, clubs from the semi-professional Conference Premier were invited to participate. Likewise, there was brief spell where there was a group stage before clubs reached the knock-out rounds. It remains, however, largely as it was conceived.
What is the prize money?
The winners of the 2015/16 Johnstone's Paint Trophy will earn up to £124,000 in prize money from what sponsors call "a record fund”. This, however, represents a fraction of the revenue that can be generated by the winning club. Talking about the rewards of the competition, the Football League’s Chief Executive, Shaun Harvey, recently pointed out that Bristol City earned an astonishing £700,000 in additional income during their latest campaign which culminated in them winning the trophy for a third time.
What are the attendances?
Understandably, the final at Wembley is a gala occasion and it accordingly attracts the greatest number of supporters. The record number of 80,841 spectators attended the 1988 final match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Burnley. It is also worth noting that in 1989 Bolton Wanderers won the then Sherpa Van Trophy in what was the last cup silverware experienced by fans. More recently, 72,000 fans travelled to Wembley for the 2015 final between Bristol City and Walsall in April.
Outside of the final, matches are often held at relatively small stadiums and in inclement winter weather. But in February 2013, when Coventry City played Crewe Alexandra at the Ricoh Arena, an impressive crowd of 31,054 watched the hosts lose the tie by a three goal margin.
Who has won it most?
Bristol City have won it a remarkable three times (in 1986, 2003 and 2015). Ironically, the club is prohibited from defending the trophy this season because, in 2015, it was promoted to the Championship whose members are barred from the competition. Birmingham City, Wigan Athletic, Stoke City, Port Vale, Bristol City, Blackpool, Swansea City and Carlisle United have each won the trophy twice.
The Football League Trophy wouldn't be an English football competition if it wasn't occasionally controversial. A number of years ago, for example, there was a suggestion that certain clubs were fielding weakened teams, possibly saving "star" players for league matches. The upshot of this was a strict new regulation which specified that each club must play its full available strength in all matches and any club failing to comply with this provision will be fined £5000.
This threat of a fine ensures that matches are competitive and paying fans see a great game. We have seen time and again in both the FA Cup and League Cup how teams are fielding weakened sides due to having other priorities. Remember the time when Man Utd didn’t feature in the FA Cup at all in favour of going to Brazil for the World Team Championship.
The 2016 final will be held on 3 April and will be contested by Oxford United, winners of the Southern division, and the winners of its Northern counterpart Barnsley.
Ahead of the 2016 final take a look at the 2015 final where North Ferriby beat Wrexham on penalties following a 3-3 draw in normal time, giving the minnows the cup for the first time in their history.