In footballing mythology the reserves are a mixture of purgatory and optimism. Practically speaking the chief function of a reserve team is, like a domestique in cycling, to be a support to the first team, its aim no more than to help the chief rider get the bet possible result, even if that sometimes comes at the expense of its own position. It is at the same time source of spare parts, a place to nurture young talent, to recuperate the less-than fully fit, or a dumping ground -even a place of punishment. Training with the reserves being the ultimate indignity for a first-team player, while being left to rot in the reserves is a fate best avoided.
The traditional world of reserve football is however under threat. And it’s more than just the sort of belt-tightening which has periodically seen reserve teams dispatched in the past. It is the whole concept reserve football itself which has fallen out of favour. Serious discontent with the model of reserve team football can be traced back, at the very least, to 2007 when the then Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez questioned whether reserve football played in separate leagues and where the results essentially were irrelevant was able to provide the right kind of experience needed for players breaking into the first-team, pointing instead to the Spanish model where reserve, or B-teams, play competitive football at as high a level as the second-tier.
Benitez was not alone in his thinking. His sentiments were echoed by other top coaches including Andre Villas Boas and David Moyes, the latter disclosing that, while at Everton, he had attempted to enter an Everton B team in the Conference, believing that his his young players would benefit from the greater realism offered by competitive football against a good standard of opposition. The league would also benefit, Moyes reasoned, from increased attendances.
Given the traditions of English league football such a move would be – and indeed has been – controversial. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that following talks with the FA Moyes’ plans failed to materialise. Other teams unhappy with the status quo would however, seek to take matters into their own hands; In 2009, Tottenham issued a statement of their intention to withdraw from the Premier League’s reserve league, replacing its regular reserve fixtures with a combination of player-loans, tournaments and private friendly fixtures.
Action was needed after several other clubs followed Tottenham in shunning the competition and following what was billed as ‘the most comprehensive review of youth development in over a decade’ came the creation of a new competition, the U-21 Premier League. In an attempt to address the concern that, at worst, reserve teams were little more than dumping grounds for out of favour players intent on seeing out their contracts the new league had an inbuilt focus on younger players. Teams would only be permitted to field three over-age outfielders and one over-age Goalkeeper.
It is however, still very much early days for the competition, only now in it’s second season and the reconfiguring of reserve football at the top level has also not prevented discontent festering further down the pyramid. In January this year Gosport Borough, then of the Southern League, announced the disbandment of their reserve team ‘with immediate effect’, pointing again to a growing gap between the standard of reserve and first team football. The club added that the reserve team function of keeping players match fit was being adequately fulfilled by an arrangement where players were dual-signed with local Wessex League Clubs.
But while clubs search for new ways of developing young players it is fans who are in danger of missing out. Reserve football provides opportunities for fans to support their club and see the next generation of talent for what is often a minimal outlay. The current fashion for scrapping reserve teams, or playing games behind closed doors (something the U21 Premier League is trying to address with new rules that only three games can be played at training ground venues) takes away this chance. Just how much reserve football would be missed is illustrated by one of the opening games of the U21 Premier League. Played on a Friday night between Chelsea and Man City at Brentford’s Griffin Park, and with tickets priced at a reasonable £3 adult and £1 child around 3000 people showed up – some of them possibly for the first time.