Youth opportunity

Alex Wolstenholme wonders if the introduction of age restrictions could reinvigorate the reserves in England as they have done north of the border

Watching the reserves is a journey into a world both instantly recognisable and yet strangely unfamiliar. The setting, the kits and often the players are the same, but there’s something missing that can be found at almost every other level of the game where a league title is played for. The fortunes of the stiffs are never a major cause of concern for fans. That part of the programme where one of the club’s ex-pros (and now second-team boss) gives his match report from the latest reserve game has never been required reading.

Managers, too, only mention the second string in connection with fitness (“X had a run out last night and might make Saturday”) or very occasionally when they are doing well as evidence that his methods are working despite the first team’s slide down the table.

Reserve-team football is not unique to the British game, but features more prominently here than in most other countries. But does it achieve anything, for clubs or for football as a whole? Reserve teams (especially in the lower leagues) can often be unrecognisable from one game to the next. One of the effects of the transfer window has been the increase in the number of loan players, trialists, out-of-contract hopefuls and those on short-term deals brought in as clubs look to wheel and deal. They are given their chance to impress alongside team-mates they may have met only a few days or even hours before.

This rapid change in personnel negates any real chance of a reserve team being a genuine feeder to the first team, adopting similar tactics. Equally, the need for second-string football if only as a means of keeping players fit is often dismissed by the game’s experts, who say that only regular first-team action can give a player that elusive “match fitness”.

Reserve-team football is certainly a better option than the alternatives that exist in other countries, with lower divisions throughout Europe pop-ulated by feeder clubs and B teams. Given the prospect of Arsenal reserves playing in the Second Division or Bury becoming a feeder team for Manchester United I’d take reserve-team football every time. But surely it can be made more relevant and useful?

The Scottish Premier League experiment of mak-ing reserve teams under-21s only (with four over age players per game allowed) looks to have increased opportunities for young players with their clubs and, more and more, with the national team. Such a move in England wouldn’t affect Premiership clubs too much. The bigger clubs have enough first-team games to keep a larger squad happy, while increases in the number of players on the bench and those allowed to come on means more players getting a first-team game than ever before. Allowing a couple of players to play for an under-21 (or under-23 team) would also cater for those who are coming back from long-term injuries.

Kevin Keegan went so far as to scrap the reserve team at Newcastle – he later called it the “biggest mistake” of his time at St James’ Park, leading to the departure of Darren Huckerby and others who could have benefited from playing in an under-21 league. Further down, an age-restricted reserve structure would lead to a more uniform (lower) wage structure, while providing increased opportunities for younger, homegrown players. It’s hard to think of a downside.

From WSC 197 July 2003. What was happening this month