On 16 November 2016, the English Football League (“EFL”) fined 12 teams participating in the EFL Chekatrade Trophy for failing to field ‘full-strength’ sides.
Pursuant to rule 7.3 of the EFL Chekatrade Trophy Rules, “each EFL Club shall play its full available strength in and during all Matches. The League will from time to time issue a policy as to what constitutes ‘full available strength’. Any Club failing to meet this requirement will be required to pay a fine of up to £5,000.”
According to the EFL, “the ‘full strength’ policy for the season 2016/17 competition was five of the starting line-up must have started the previous or following game (a reduction from six in season 2015/16) or five of the starting 11 who have made the most starting appearances in League and domestic Cup competitions fixtures during the current season.”
Luton and Portsmouth have been fined £15,000 each for breaches in three games. Bradford, Blackpool, Bristol Rovers, MK Dons, Millwall, Charlton, Peterborough, Sheffield United and Southend have been fined £3,000 and Fleetwood £5,000. They all have the right to appeal.
The EFL say they considered “mitigating factors” and considered “transgressions that were not within the spirit of the rules”. They may be referring to Bradford City’s attempt to adhere to the rules by replacing Bradford’s regular goalkeeper Colin Doyle with reserve Rouven Sattelmaier after only three minutes of their match against Bury on 4 October 2016. No doubt the EFL have provided written reasons particularising each of the aforementioned teams’ breaches.
It appears from a variety of reports that the EFL implemented the rule and policy in order to increase fan interest, participation and attendance in a cup competition that has seen anything but. The BBC reports that 284 spectators attended West Brom’s academy side play at home to Gillingham and 308 saw Middlesbrough’s development side lose 3-0 at home to Shrewsbury during the final round of group matches.
From a legal perspective, the rules are clear and have been breached. Luton chief executive Gary Sweet was even quoted by the BBC as saying “We entered those teams with our eyes wide open and we accept that we would be fined for doing so”. However, the level of the fine was not to his liking. Mr. Sweet said that he was “staggered” Luton had “been fined the maximum amount for our first offence, which was winning away from home at a club from the division above with half-a-dozen first-team regulars in their team”. He felt that his team was being punished for giving their younger players experience.
Two issues arise here in Luton’s case. Firstly, there is the harshness of the sanction. The EFL fined them the maximum amount for the three games that they breached the rules. This may be because of the frequency with which they have knowingly flouted the rules. However, it is unclear how they have considered that Luton’s actions were not “in the spirit of the game”, especially given their scalps in the competition, which included Premier League side West Brom “containing four players, two of whom who were internationals and had been transferred for several million pounds”. In my view, they may be able to argue that giving young English players the opportunity to play in the senior side is in the spirit of the game and is ostensibly the reason why competitions such as the Chekatrade Trophy are in existence.
The second issue is the validity of the rule in the first instance. The implementation of rules and regulations in associations and companies such as the EFL is usually governed by its Articles of Association. Pursuant to regulation 2.1 of the EFL Rules, no amendment may be made to the rules without following procedure Article 13 of the Articles of Association. These appear not to have been made public, but it is unlikely the individual clubs, as members of the EFL would have voting rights to directly effect these rules.
In any event, it seems that the EFL are stuck between a rock and a hard place in attempting to revamp the EFL Trophy. On a commercial view, it needs sponsorship and the way to entice commercial entities such as Chekatrade, an online search engine for tradesmen; and Johnstone’s Paint before it, is to provide an attractive competition for them to attach their name. It appears as if they do not have confidence in fans turning up to support their teams if the youth players and more often than not, the less recognisable members of the team, are in the starting line up.
On the other hand and some may say on a moral or ethical view, one would hope that the EFL would want to assist clubs such as Luton nurture their young talent by giving them valuable game time. Resources at such clubs are limited and players in the youth teams are more likely to be closer to the first team squad, so one may argue that their participation in the competition is inevitable. It is likely therefore that the EFL and not the clubs that have been fined, have not been acting “in the spirit of the game”.