English football will soon witness a new dawn, as the arrival of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) looks set to spark a complete overhaul in the structure of youth development. The impending migration of the countries best talent towards the top flight surely presents us with the perfect opportunity to revitalise the matches that exist outside first-team football.
Let’s be brutally honest for a moment, football at a reserve level is in a state of disrepair. Teams are littered with players banished from the first-team, those who are recovering from injury or simply those who can no longer continue their development in the academy. The games are played at a monotonous pace in front of a handful of people, with players almost looking embarrassed upon hearing the subdued reaction when they score. Reserve football is so far removed from the intensity and atmosphere of the Premier League that clubs prefer to send their most promising youngsters out on loan, thus saving them from growing stale in such an uninspiring environment.
There have already been a number of proposals that have tried to incorporate reserve squads into more competitive surroundings. Former Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas advocated the concept of installing Premier League B sides into the Championship as a way of replicating the system used in Spain. However, this idea could never realistically materialise simply because the popularity and indeed identity of English football exists throughout the lower leagues. Any plan that would diminish its importance would face strong opposition up and down the country.
Everton manager David Moyes reportedly contacted officials in the Conference to enquire into the possibility of enrolling a reserve side in the Blue Square Premier. The Toffees were happy to exclude this team from ever achieving promotion but were forced to abandon the idea when told they would have to start on the bottom rung of the non-league ladder.
The introduction of a specialised league for the swarm of talented youngsters could, under the right guidance, be hailed as an exciting, new spectacle within the game. With the right promotion, clubs should be able to convince their fans to attend these games that supposedly showcase the future of their club. Perhaps they could target those legions of fans on the waiting list for season tickets, if the likes of Spurs could appeal to a mere fraction of their 35,000 hopeful applicants then it would improve development immeasurably.
At present only a fleeting number of reserve games are shown on television and even these are exclusive to the specific broadcasting channels of each club. If the FA managed to tickle the interest of a major broadcasting organisation then this could prove to be an important new revenue stream.
The benefits for the players is obvious, instead of competing in a graveyard of forgotten talent, this new league structure could see them pitted against their fellow promising individuals who are equally eager to prove themselves. The benefits of spending an increased amount of time with these youngsters could surely involve thrusting them into a competitive environment.
Perhaps there is no need to develop a specialised league to incorporate the new influx of academy stars, as a range of competitions already exist across the continent. On Wednesday Arsenal revealed they would be entering the NextGen Series, which celebrated its debut outing last year. The format is essentially a juvenile version of the Champions League that serves to highlight and promote some of the most promising youth set-ups in Europe.
Arsène Wenger spoke of his delight at obtaining a place for next season’s tournament:
“We are excited about joining the NextGen Series next season… You play against the best players of your age and it will be a very interesting experience for us. It’s also a good way to assess your players and to give you an idea of the future potential of the Club.” (NextGen)
The Gunners will join a further six British clubs including the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool but many will be surprised to hear of the exclusion of Manchester United. Sir Alex and co declined an invitation to be included in the competition, insisting that they were already participating in a number of high-quality events. The Red Devils recently sent a young reserve side to the Elite Group competition at the Dallas Cup, losing in the final to Coritiba of Brazil. An under-17 team also suffered defeat to Ajax on penalties in the recent Amsterdam Tournament. These overseas competitions clearly present a better scouting opportunity as well as the chance to learn and incorporate foreign styles of playing techniques.
I’ve only been a reserve game once, on a bitterly cold Tuesday night down at Bromley where I became instantly aware that the players were even less interested than the fans. But what do you think, would you be interested in watching the future generation of stars strut their stuff on a weeknight? Perhaps one day the chant of ‘Thursday night, Channel 5’ will be seen as a good thing.