An eternal debate in football — and one that is unlikely to ever have a definitive answer — is how to optimise the development of your young players. It is unavoidable that, at some point, the youngsters will have to face off with adult professionals, but top clubs would ideally prefer those initial forays into senior football to take place with little or no risk to the parent club.
Loans are a common solution to this quandary, but young players who leave on loan very, very rarely go on to break into the first team, and while loans do provide the benefit of competitive football against experienced professionals, it also means a year away from elite coaches and training facilities, and immersion in a playing style and philosophy that doesn’t necessarily match up well with that of the parent club.
The top clubs in England, then, have long lobbied to have their youth teams register in the lower levels of official senior competition, similar to the system employed in Spain and Germany, but have, naturally, met resistance from the clubs fighting tooth and nail to maintain their spot in those leagues.
A compromise in recent years has been youth team participation in the EFL Trophy — currently known as the Papa John’s Trophy, and yes, it’s that Papa John — which, in addition to 16 invited youth teams from Premier League and Championship clubs, pits against each other the teams from League One and Two.
In terms of results, the competition has not been particularly fruitful for the club, with the young Reds managing only a single point from six games in the past two seasons. Nonetheless, they will be back at it this year, and have been drawn into Group D of the Northern section, alongside League One outfits Bolton Wanderers and Rochdale, as well as League Two side Port Vale.
The fixture list has not been released yet, but the competition typically begins in early September, and regardless of whether the young Reds are able to make it out of their group, or indeed take any points at all, hopefully the challenge will provide useful experience for the players as they attempt to make the grade at the Academy.