The format has been confirmed for this season’s revamped EFL Trophy, with the Cobblers now knowing they will be in a regionalised group of four teams, including a Premier League Academy team.
The competition, which replaces the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, will feature 64 clubs, and will see 16 groups of four teams, each of which will include at least one club from each of leagues one and two, along with one invited team from a group of 16 clubs with Category One Academies.
The clubs that have been invited to take part this season are Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Leicester City, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Middlesbrough, Newcastle United, Southampton, Stoke City, Sunderland, Swansea City, Tottenham Hotspur, West Bromwich Albion and West Ham United.
Cobblers assistant boss Paul Wilkinson admits he is not surprised at the move, and said: “I have been involved in acadamies over the years, and it is something I know they have been desperate to do.
“It will be interesting to see how it goes, because it will be a big challenge for the academy teams.
“There is nothing like first team football, no matter what level you are at, first team football is another step forward and it will be a challenge.”
At the end of the group stage, the top two sides in each group will then go into a knockout stage that will culminate in a showpiece final at Wembley Stadium on April 2.
The EFL have enhanced the prize fund for the competition, with an expected £1.95m being up for grabs, including £10,000 per win and £5,000 per draw during the group stage and £100,000 for the eventual winner.
EFL Chief Executive Shaun Harvey said: “The new format is intended to rejuvenate this competition and also assist the development of the very best young players in English football.
“This will help us deliver more and better home grown players which will deliver benefits to the national team and domestic league football at all levels.
“I believe this is the right time to pilot these changes to the EFL Trophy, which we will review at the end of the 2016/17 season following discussions with our clubs and having consulted with the other football bodies and supporter organisations.”
In all games, EFL clubs will have to field a minimum of five ‘first team’ players in the starting 11, as defined under the competition’s existing rules, while the academy teams must field a starting line-up that features six players who qualify for under-21 football.
The format of the competition will see clubs play each other once, either home or away, with academy clubs to play one home game at the club’s first team stadium.
Clubs will be awarded three points for a win and one point for a draw, and in the event of a drawn game (after 90 minutes), a penalty shootout will be held with the winning team earning an additional point.
The top two teams will progress to the knockout stage.
The first knockout stage, the last 32, will remain regionalised with each group winner being drawn at home to a second placed team from a different qualifying group, but round three and four and the semi-finals will be ‘free’ draws.
The semi-final will be a single tie played at the stadium of the club drawn first in each tie.
If scores are level after 90 minutes in rounds two, three and four, the game will be determined by the taking of penalties. The EFL will confirm arrangements for the semi-finals and final in due course following further consultation.
The dates for matches in this season’s competition are as follows: Dates: Group Stage - w/c August 29, 2016; w/c October 3, 2016, w/c November 7, 2016. Round 2 - w/c December 5, 2016. Round 3 - w/c January 9, 2017. Round 4 - w/c January 23, 2017. Semi-final - w/c February 20, 2017. Final - April 2, 2017 at Wembley Stadium.