Nothing in reserve

A few years ago reserve games contained a smattering of stars and small clubs could mix it with the internationals, pulling in decent crowds. But rule changes have ended that, as Gavin Willacy explains

This season sees English football take another step towards the sanitised uniformity epitomised by America’s major leagues. Again, it is being driven by the Premier League. For the first time, every Premiership club will only play against fellow top flight clubs at reserve-team level. That sounds logical, but it is far from necessary.

The FA Premier Reserve League had grown in number since launching at the millennium as newcomers joined but no one was relegated. The main issue, according to the chairmen, was not the strange composition of the league where the ghosts of ten bloated former Premiership carcasses such as Leeds, Wolves, Leicester and Ipswich hung around, but that the increase had led to too many games: 28 in the north, 26 in the south. That may not sound like many across eight months, but the new system of just ten clubs in each division (18 games) suits Premiership clubs down to the ground. The rest are now thrown together in the regionalised Pontins Central League and Football Combination. Leeds reserves play Grimsby stiffs. Hardly helpful for player development, but what do the Premier League care?

Several factors have led to the decline of reserves football. The growth of matchday squads from 11 to 16 (even more in Europe) means almost 50 per cent more players are involved in each first-team game than in the 1960s. With most clubs now concentrating their resources on a first-team squad of about 24 senior pros, the notion of “reserve-team players” just no longer exists at many clubs.

International breaks and far more European matches have meant more and more midweek games for Premiership and Championship clubs, removing a whole swathe of first-team fringe from spending Monday night with the stiffs. Granted, last season Arsenal fielded Poom, Campbell, Clichy, Senderos, Eboué, Flamini, Van Persie, Gilbert, Bentley and some kid called Walcott, while Chelsea rolled out the World Cup-bound Bridge, Del Horno, Huth, Ferreira and Maniche, as well as Wright-Phillips, Jarosik, Johnson and Carlton Cole. But the vast majority of the Premiership’s stars lowered themselves to take part in reserve games only once or twice, mostly as they came back from injury. Those nine Chelsea stars played a total of 19 reserve games between them. Despite being cuckolded by José Mourinho, Wright-Phillips played just once.

A typical reserve match was the penultimate one of last season: Liverpool v Manchester United on a Sunday at Wrexham. I’d not heard of a single one of the 32 players. Most would not be recognised in their own street.

In an amusing public display of getting your excuses in first, Chelsea claim that their “approach to the reserve team has often been different to other clubs in that it is often seen as a step up from the youth team rather than a place for the first-team squad players”. That is now the norm, not the exception, albeit to differing extremes at different clubs. With only two league games a month, Arsenal reserves and Under-18s are virtually the same team. Other clubs even field schoolboys, especially in the holidays.

Another nail in the reserves’ coffin has been the desire to have immaculate playing surfaces. Almost every pro club stage their reserve games at smaller grounds down the food chain. Several League and Conference clubs are happy to have an extra midweek game on their pitch if someone else is paying. The only reserve team you can see at Underhill this season will be Arsenal’s: Barnet have binned theirs, supposedly to save money. When Kevin Keegan did away with Newcastle’s second string he was widely mocked, but Derby and Crewe are among the clubs to follow his lead, preferring to play training-ground friendlies when their fringe or injured players need matches.

Reserves football is rather like cricket’s County Championship: for the vast majority of matches, there are not many more spectators than players and most of those watching seem more interested in the contents of their flask and discussing the relative merits of patios and decking. But huge numbers follow the results, mainly online or by scanning the paper’s small print. They may forget them again a few minutes later, but they care enough to look. It’s one of the loyalty vows every fanatic takes. Hypocritically, those who actually go to watch are considered by the majority to be either a) lacking in sufficient social domestic stimulation on midweek evenings or b) nutters.

The demise of reserve-team football contrasts greatly with the boom period of the late 1990s. Market leaders Leicester City used Pontins Central League games as a handy promotional tool, regularly getting five-figure crowds along to Filbert Street where the kids – many having their first visit to the club and lured in by free tickets, entertainment, even colour programmes – got to see Manchester United, Liverpool, Leeds et al. Every visiting team brought one or two “names” who you could concentrate on and gossip about later.

Other clubs followed: Sunderland got huge crowds to reserve games; Preston reserves hosted regular four-figure gates in the late Nineties when the first team were still in the third tier. Media coverage was considerable and away followings grew to such an extent that segregation was required at some games, if, say, Man Utd and Liverpool were coming to town on a school night, complete with a smattering of internationals and TV crews in tow.

But the Premier League put an end to all that. What was once a cheap and cheerful way to experience pro football at top stadiums has now been reduced to games such as Preston versus Tranmere at a deserted Bamber Bridge. Funnily enough, PNE’s reserve crowds have crashed to ten per cent of what they were.

What’s next? A Championship Reserves League? Probably. The same divisions for youth teams and women, too? Possibly. As far as the Premiership is concerned, it’s each to his own already.

From WSC 235 September 2006. What was happening this month