TheSamMorsheadColumn

‘Go on. Eat the fruit,’ said the serpent. ‘Your eyes will be opened and you will certainly not die’.

And so, tempted, they did.

On Wednesday, the organisation-formerly-known-as-the-Football-League announced the full make-up of this season’s EFL Trophy.

Sixteen under-23 sides from Premier League and Championship academies will now compete with the 48 clubs from League One and League Two in a one-year pilot programme stapled together at the top-flight’s bequest.

Biting at the £1million apple offered by the country’s elite clubs, the EFL and its members had due cause to allow the bastardisation of the tournament. But its short-termist approach opens wide doors which should never even be allowed to be left unlocked, let alone ajar.

What began life as the Associate Members’ Cup in 1983 has, in various guises, served the lower leagues quietly but reliably ever since.

There’s never been anything glamorous about the competition – its sponsors have exclusively dealt in vans, windscreens and paint, and those of us to have witnessed its early rounds can attest to just how low-brow some of the football has been – but the Trophy has been a chance for smaller teams, and their fans, to enjoy at least one day in the limelight.

Since its inception 33 years ago, it has given 39 different sides the opportunity to play for silverware at either Wembley or the Millennium Stadium – a big deal for clubs whose role in English football is becoming increasingly similar to that of the extra being pelted with tomatoes in the background of a big-budget period drama.

Premier League followers may look down on it as the runt of the litter – the scrawny, peculiar little creature with a club foot and cheeky smile – but for those for whom Super Sunday means a beer and a roast 24 hours after a 2-1 win at Barnet, the Trophy has both merit and purpose.

That’s why emotions are so high right now.

From a purely financial perspective, the EFL can be forgiven for choosing the path it has. Their competition was on its back – member clubs were suffering under the burden of matches which cost more to put on than they delivered in gate receipts, while prize money was practically non-existent unless teams reached Wembley.

Along came the Premier League with the lure of a seven-figure cash injection and these problems, albeit momentarily, could just go away.

Member clubs initially opposed to the idea were coaxed into changing their minds by the suggestion of big-money paydays with trips to Old Trafford, Anfield and the Emirates. After all, the rules would stipulate one home game would have to be played at the big clubs’ first-team grounds.

Cash-poor sides in the nether reaches of League Two reacted as you would expect, displaying survival instinct – nothing more, nothing less.

It was, quite simply, the only option other than seeing the tournament disbanded altogether. Indeed, that alternative was discussed prior to the EFL agreeing to a trial run of its new format.

I would have rather seen it die.

Not because I want to see my team shrivel, not because I want to actively deny smaller sides the opportunity to earn much-needed cash.

My problems with the EFL Trophy are more long-term.

What does the acceptance of elite academies into lower-league football actually mean?

What precedent is being set by our clubs allowing themselves to be manipulated by TV money they will barely see a rusted cent of?

What happens next?

Richard Scudamore, the Premier League bigwig, has insisted that the new format of the competition does not herald the phasing in of elite clubs’ B teams.

He has been at pains to say, just like his EFL equivalent Shaun Harvey, that this is a pilot scheme and that fears and concerns can be allayed.

Call me a cynic but I don’t believe it.

In a recent interview, though stating now is ‘the beginning of the end’ for the idea of elite clubs sending their reserves to play in League One and Two, Scudamore made an off-the-cuff admission.

‘Yes, of course we know some of our clubs would like B teams,’ he said.

And what Premier League clubs want… well, I’m sure you can finish the sentence.

Let’s not forget, EFL member teams agreed to a proposal which featured 16 Premier League category one academies. That was the draw, the allure, the apple on the tree.

Yet Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham all scoffed at the idea. Just one headline act – Chelsea – is involved, and even they appear to have been given special dispensation to do so.

The competition is meant to take place only during international breaks – a scheduling issue which Harvey bemoaned in a press release on the day of the draw – yet the Blues have already had fixtures moved to two weeks which fall outside the FIFA-designated windows.

Another club to have had the rules tweaked just for them is West Ham.

Fans of Coventry, Northampton and Wycombe – the teams picked to face the Hammers in the group stages – could have justifiably got excited about the prospect of playing at the Olympic Stadium, given the proposals presented to clubs at their summer conference in Portugal stressed one of each invited team’s matches would take place at their first team’s stadium.

Yet West Ham will play all three of their games away from home – apparently due to a licensing issue under the terms of their tenancy in Stratford.

And what of the clubs who bought into the idea of 16 top-flight academies who are now left trying to flog tickets for the visit of Blackburn’s youth team on a Tuesday night in November?

Regardless of whether these mini U-turns are broken promises or teething problems, the fact remains that they are U-turns. Changes to suit the clubs with whom the key to the treasure chest resides.

And further down the line, who says they won’t turn around and demand a radical structure shift in the lower leagues?

If they do, the EFL has shown it is unlikely to say no, backed into a corner by the financial strain and ridiculous disbalance between themselves and the Premier League.

Allowing academies into the EFL Trophy for one season is not the problem; it was a logical option to keep alive a competition that was gasping for breath.

But, for the record, it is certainly not the fix to England’s footballing woes which some would purport it as being either.

Instead, it’s the precedent it sets that is most worrying. And even more depressing.

Football fans whose teams can’t afford an overnight stay the night before a game, let alone a first-class flight, are acutely concerned about losing their identity.

The EFL Trophy, for all its innate mediocrity, was one of the final bastions of lower-league identity. It was ours, all ours. We could be sharks in a paddling pool.

What next?

‘They took a bite and suddenly became aware they were naked.’

Not even fig leaves can protect our Football League now.