Harry is his team’s outstanding striker. He can hit the ball with either foot with rocket-like precision. He can leap like a salmon and gets great headers. He has scored more goals than anyone has ever done for his club. He is an icon. But he is going through a bad spell. No goals for five games now and he is getting tense. The manager ‘drops’ him and it makes the headlines. Harry has to play for the reserves. A blow to his dignity. He is angry, but being a true professional, he accepts his fate. His first game for them is not a success: no goals and a poor performance. He scores a hat trick in his second game. But he is not recalled to the first team. Harry goes to see the manager. The manager tells him that he needs to do more: only then he will look at bringing him back to the first team. Harry responds and gets back into the first team. He continues on his successful career path.
Those times have gone. Let’s be fair: Harry’s career at the club could well have been waning, but in those days the reserve team was a different beast. They played on the same day as the first team. If you couldn’t make it to your first team’s away game you could go and watch the reserves. You could see the young players playing with some seasoned pros. Both benefited: the first team players could regain confidence, reap havoc against less experienced opposition. The younger players in the reserve team could learn exponentially through playing with the seasoned pros. A bygone era!
These days the reserve leagues serve a different function. The basic concept is that of the ‘development squad’ where young players are seemingly groomed for the Premier League. In reality, the players who play in the Premier Reserve League are from all over the world. Few of them make the jump to the Premier League. Worryingly fewer of them are English. The top clubs find ways to recruit the best teenagers worldwide, although their ethics can leave a sour taste in the mouth.
Take Wigan Athletic as an example. Twenty-one players have represented them — either started or come off the bench — in the 13 Premier League matches played this year. The development squad/reserve team have played 12 matches. 8 of those games were played without any of the aforementioned ‘first teamers’. James McArthur has played two games for the WADs; six others have played one game each. However, four of those were in one match against Everton Reserves. Hendry Thomas is still nominally a member of the first team squad, but he has not appeared on the pitch in the Premier League this year. In that time he has played one game for the WADs. An even more extreme case is that of Mike Pollitt who has not stepped on the pitch for either the first team or the WADs. How can these players possibly be match fit when they are playing no competitive football?
Wigan Athletic are not alone in having players who have been playing for neither their first or second strings up to this point. Reserve teams are regarded primarily as development squads for younger players, rather than as a means of keeping highly paid, underused senior professionals match fit. Wigan are one of the few Premier League clubs to have largely English players in their development squad. The club’s official site lists 17 ‘young professionals’ of whom only the young Spaniards, Roman Golobart and Abian Serrano, come from outside the UK. Looking at Manchester United’s reserve team lineup in the recent match against our WADs, they are largely foreign players. Last year was the best reserve team Wigan Athletic has ever had. They came close to winning the Premier Reserve League North, amid fierce competition, with a team largely composed of players born within a 40 mile radius of Wigan. Two of the outstanding performers – Callum McMananan and Roman Golobart – have since been sent off on loan in an attempt to give them a taste of first team football. However, seasoned development squad veterans such as Daniel Redmond and Jordan Mustoe must wonder whether they will ever make the jump to Premier League football. A make or break season for them.
Hats off to Roberto Martinez, Graham Barrow and the coaching staff for revitalizing our youth system, bringing in so many capable young professionals. Those young pros who are fortunate enough to play in the Premier Reserve League are meeting good quality opposition. Unfortunately this cannot be said of our third string team who play in the Football League Youth Alliance against the likes of Macclesfield and Tranmere. They have won only 2 of their 12 matches this season. Although it can be argued that results are not the key factor with this age range there is clearly a lot of work to be done by the new coach John Doolan. A pity that we cannot compete with the bigger clubs at this level.
My overriding concern is that of first team squad players who simply do not play enough competitive football to be match-fit. Our strikers cannot score goals but Rodallega and Sammon have each played only one game for the reserves and Di Santo has played none. Putting senior players into the reserve team helps them move toward match sharpness while their presence benefits the younger members of the squad. A balance needs to be achieved, between using the reserve team to maintain levels of match fitness among the senior squad, and providing a nurturing environment for the young pros. There is an imbalance in this respect not only at Wigan ,but at most clubs in the Premier League. It needs to be addressed.