BLACKBURN Rovers Under-23s kick start their Checkatrade Trophy campaign at Fleetwood Town tonight (7.45pm) with boss Damien Johnson insisting the experience will be invaluable for his young players.

The Football League’s decision to invite 16 Premier League and Championship clubs with category one academies into the competition previously reserved for Leagues One and Two outfits has been met with criticism.

But Rovers Under-23 lead coach Damien Johnson, who finished his playing career at Fleetwood, said: “I understand both arguments.

“From a lower-league club’s point of view they probably don’t want Blackburn’s development squad coming in and potentially knocking them out.

“But on the flipside everyone in football accepts there is a massive step up from under-21s football, as it was called last year, to first-team football.

“They’re trying to make it more like first-team football and the best way to do that is competitions like this.

“It’s like a first-team game. There’s no training grounds. We played Stoke City on Saturday and it was at a non-league ground.

“That doesn’t replicate what the lads are going to experience if they do get into the first team but going to Fleetwood, hopefully playing their first team, certainly will.

“From our point of view we’re absolutely delighted because it gives the lads the opportunity to show they are closer to bridging the gap.

“And, if they show that, we know we have a manager here who will give young players an opportunity.

“This stage is perfect for them.”

Rovers’ line-up tonight must include six players who were under the age of 21 on June 30.

First-team boss Owen Coyle must decide whether any of his senior stars will play any part of the Highbury encounter.

Fit-again midfielder Corry Evans, who will now join up with the Northern Ireland squad, played 45 minutes, and former England defender Wes Brown, who has been training with the club since the summer, played the full match as Rovers Under-23s recorded their first victory of the Premier League 2 season on Saturday with a 1-0 victory over Stoke at Leek Town.

Striker Lewis Mansell got the only goal of the game as Johnson’s side, featuring left-back Jack Doyle and winger Connor Mahoney after they missed out on a place in Coyle’s first-team matchday squad, built on their 0-0 home draw with Middlesbrough.

Johnson said: “We were comfortable throughout. We controlled the game and had to be patient waiting for our chance.

“Mahoney was a constant threat out wide and Mansell has taken his goal really well.

“It is pleasing to get another clean sheet and we were much better on the ball than we were against Middlesbrough.

“It is good preparation for the match on Tuesday.”

Rovers Under-23s have been drawn in Northern Section D of the Checkatrade Trophy and, after tonight’s opener against Fleetwood, will travel to Carlisle United on Tuesday, October 4 before welcoming Oldham Athletic to Ewood Park on Tuesday, November 8.

There will be a penalty shoot-outs if group games are even after 90 minutes. The team which triumphs on spot-kicks will be awarded an additional point.

The top two sides in each of the 16 groups will progress to the knock-out stage.

Johnson added: “Sometimes it can be a bit of a taboo word in development football but there’s no doubt we’re striving to create players with a winning mentality.

“That’s certainly part of their development so as with most games we’ll be trying to win them.

“We’re under no uncertain terms all the games in the group are going to be really difficult but we’re just delighted we got the invitation and the prospect for the lads to play Fleetwood, Carlisle and Oldham is fantastic.”

Entry tonight costs £20 for adults, £10 for seniors and £5 for under-16s.