This week’s EFL trophy game between Walsall and Port Vale attracted less than a thousand spectators. Two thousand less than the last time they met in the same competition. This is partly due to supporter unease about the presence of academy teams from bigger clubs in a competition designed for the lower leagues. One of those academies belongs to Walsall’s neighbors, Wolves. As a fourth division club in 1988, a level lower than Walsall’s current status, Wolves attracted eighty thousand for the final of the EFL’s predecessor.
The lure of Wembley is waning. Although Walsall played there for the only time in the 2015 EFL final, other clubs have returned within weeks to contest the play-offs. No Academy team has made the final yet. When they do, it is certain that both teams will struggle to sell tickets. Nobody wants to watch their side compete against a youth team.
Walsall are of the few clubs to make a profit. Others, heavily in debt, cannot afford to keep playing games that don’t attract supporters. The wider unspoken fear is of B teams and academies creeping into the lower leagues as they have in other parts of Europe. Reserves cast loose in the professional game, bringing real clubs closer to extinction.