How can reserve football in England be improved?

Last week, Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas called for a rethink into the way reserve football is organised in England, calling upon the football authorities to adopt the model used by several European countries, where the reserve team of many of the best clubs plays in one of the lower divisions of that countries league. Villas-Boas cited Barcelona B, of the Segunda División as a prime example, as Barcelona have benefitted from having their young players play in a competitive environment, so as and when they were needed for the first team, they were ready. Villas-Boas is not alone in suggesting reserve football needs a revamp. Everton manager David Moyes revealed that a few years ago he had approached the Conference, which is the tier directly below the official Football League, with the intention of trying to enter Everton’s reserve team in that division, but with the condition that they could never be promoted to the Football League. Moyes was told he could enter a reserve team but they’d have to start at a far lower level and work their way up, so he scrapped the idea.

The current system for reserve football for all Premier League teams, except those of QPR, Spurs, Manchester City and Stoke, is that their reserves play in the Premier Reserve League, which is split into two divisions, North and South. The winners of the North and South divisions then play each other in a two-legged playoff to find the overall winner.

The days when reserve football was almost as good as the first team have long gone. Bill Shankly could no longer say “In my time at Anfield we always said we had the best two teams in Merseyside; Liverpool and Liverpool reserves”. Back in the 70’s and 80’s it was not uncommon for the best English clubs to sign a player, even an established player, and then put them in the reserve team for a season or more, to allow the player to adjust to a new club and a new way of playing, before exposing them to first team football. That just wouldn’t happen today.

The whole point of reserve team football was to keep players not in the first XI match fit, so that when they were required for first-team duty, they were ready, and to give young players a taste of what it was like to play with slightly better players to ease the transition between youth football and senior level.

Nowadays, the reserve team is now used almost solely for young players too old to play in the Academy leagues, or who have ‘progressed’ out of youth-team football to reserve football. Nowadays, the only time the reserve team of one of the big English sides features a first-team player is when they are coming back from injury and they need some match practise. Most teams don’t field anyone that’s in their first team squad, which makes reserve football just a glorified version of youth football and not conducive to developing footballers.

Few reserve games are televised, with only the clubs with their own TV channel broadcasting games, and they’re not exactly a big ratings draw. These games are not well attended, despite the low admission prices. Many games are played either during the day, which means there are even fewer spectators than normal, or behind closed doors, so players get no experience of what it’s like to play in front of a big crowd, or playing in a more competitive atmosphere.

Most young players have to go out on loan to get the experience that reserve-team football is supposed to provide. The best players go on loan to another Premier League club, like Jack Wilshire did when he went to Bolton, and Chelsea’s Josh McEachran has done by going on loan to Swansea. Many players now go on loan to a team in League One, then to one in the Championship, then to maybe one in the Premier League to get the required experience for first-team football, which makes reserve football seem redundant.

Something needs to be done, but I’m not sure what. It seems absurd that players can be playing competitive matches at a team’s academy from when they’re seven-years-old, but at the moment they could do with some competitive football, they get stuck in a totally uncompetitive reserve league. It should be the other way around.

AVB’s idea is too heavy-handed; it seems wrong to me that any team should have to move out of the league to make way for a reserve team. Moyes’ idea was probably better, but while the Conference is a good level to maybe allow young players to toughen up a bit, so that they are better equipped to deal with the physical demands of senior football, I don’t think the standard of football played at that level is sufficient to see the developments in skill that Moyes would be hoping for.

The best idea I can think of would be to allow the reserve teams competing in the Premier Reserve League each season to play in the Football League Trophy (currently called the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy). This is a competition currently open to the 48 clubs that make up League’s One and Two. In its current format, 16 clubs get a bye to the second round, so you could put the 16 clubs of the Premier Reserve League in without having to lengthen the competition. You could charge the Premier League teams a fee to enter, which I’m sure they’d be willing to pay to give their players a taste of competitive action, so there is potentially more money available to the league clubs, while making the reserve clubs ineligible to receive any prize money themselves. This isn’t a real solution of course, but would at least give players at that level a taste of competitive football.

There are some alternatives being explored to the current system to develop young footballers. There is the NextGen Series, a competition which sets out to be a Champions League for Under-19’s. Also, with the Elite Player Performance Plan, a youth development system devised by the Premier League, which comes into being in a couple of years time, there are plans to setup a more competitive development league for Under-21’s.

It remains to be seen whether or not any of these initiative will aid the development of footballers in England. In the meantime, plenty of young players are stuck playing in a totally uncompetitive form of football, which does nothing to aid their development. Most people agree something needs to be done, but nobody seems to agree what the solution is.