Focus on reserve teams ahead of Under 21 Manchester United-Chelsea final
A semi-final match between the Under 21 sides of England’s two biggest football clubs.
Television cameras are in abundance around Anfield for Liverpool’s game against old foes Manchester United, to be broadcast live on three separate channels. Former players of both clubs, such as Steve McManaman and Owen Hargreaves, stand on the sideline offering opinions.
Despite admission costing less than £5 (Dh30), and some tickets given away free, Anfield is sparsely populated, with around 2,000 fans sitting in the centre of the 13,000-seat Spion Kop stand, most of them families.
At the opposite end, 350 United fans made the 35-mile trip from Manchester, while the main stand contains Liverpool’s vocal under-10 team singing songs about Yaya and Kolo Toure, plus scouts, agents and coaches hoping to take players on loan next season.
“Technically, they’re all excellent,” said a coach from an English League One club attending the game.
“I’m here to see what their attitude is like, and whether their egos will be too big to play for a smaller club like ours.”
United won that game 1-0 and will play in tonight’s Premier League U21 final against a Chelsea team who knocked Manchester City out in the other semi-final.
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It will be staged at Old Trafford, admission is free and the crowd may hit five figures, so watching reserve football in England remains a minority pastime.
There are diehard fans who go to every game, but United’s reserves – all of them full-time professionals likely to have good careers in football – have regularly played in front of 300 supporters in smaller stadiums located in Bury, Hyde, Altrincham and Salford.
Families who might find Premier League football expensive are offered a far-cheaper alternative, but it reamins a hard sell. Games are infrequent and reserve-team football has become under-21 football.
Where once United’s Class of ’92 were schooled alongside experienced professionals or those returning from injury, now they meet players their own age.
“When I came through, I played with older pros like Bryan Robson and Dion Dublin,” recalled Nicky Butt, now a coach at United.
“The most important thing is to play in front of a crowd and in a proper stadium. That’s what mirrors first-team football.”
“Coming up against men from an early age helped me physically and mentally, it brought me on,” said Ryan Giggs.
The boys no longer play against men, and proposals released last week would radically restructure English football.
Greg Dyke, the chairman of the English Football Association, wants to increase the number of English players in the Premier League from 60 to 90 by 2022. Dyke’s proposals would effectively lead to a feeder system, since they would allow wealthy clubs to stash eight players in two clubs in League One or Two.
Dyke described Manchester City’s title win as “pretty depressing” because their starting XI on Sunday contained one English player.
More controversially, he thus wants to establish B teams in a new League Three – between League Two and the semi-professional Conference – a move that would change the structure of the historic 92-strong professional league.
The proposals have met widespread criticism, but big clubs like the idea. Asked about a United reserve team playing in the Football League, the club’s deputy vice chairman, Ed Woodward, said: “If we could have a B team playing, then it would solve a lot of the issues.
“The reserves do deliver some of the objectives; the system just is not as good as it could be. Barcelona and Real Madrid have a competitive advantage with their system” of B teams playing second-division football.
“Ajax have got it,” he said. “A team in the division below went bust a year ago. Ajax stepped in and now they are developing their players that way.
“You can look at different models and what Spurs have done with Swindon. You can look at rotating players in the first team.
“There is no clear and obvious answer. If you buy a top 18 year old, a Ronaldo or Rooney, they could go straight in with the first team. Or they could go into the squad at number 25 or 26.”
Rooney, Ronaldo and perhaps Adnan Januzaj were exceptions, but most players need real experience not found in reserve football, so they are sent on loan.
Given the limited nature of reserve-team football in England, intelligent loan moves can greatly aid a player’s development.
“Going to Leicester [then in League One] after years at Old Trafford was a shock to my system,” Tom Cleverley said.
“I went from reserve games in front of 300, to really competitive matches in front of 20,000. I was thrown into men’s football against experienced professionals who were playing for their win bonuses.
“My first 45 minutes for Leicester passed me by before I composed myself at half time and settled down.”
He was a success at Leicester and then moved up the divisions on loan with Watford and Wigan Athletic, but the exodus of loan players further weakens reserves football. Thirteen United players have been on loan at Championship-level clubs this season, four to European clubs.
Supporters of the Spanish system advocate its strengths.
“Pep [Guardiola] was manager and we’d go to little Catalan towns where everyone wants to shoot you down because you played for Barca,” recalled Sergio Busquets of a season spent in Spain’s fourth tier.
“I remember one game at Rapitenca, in a tiny stadium in the south of Catalonia, near the Ebro Delta. The people were shouting all kinds of abuse at us, as were the other players. Most of us were 18, 19, playing against 34-year-old men who wished they’d played for Barca.
“It didn’t intimidate me. I don’t mind that part of the game. In fact, I quite like an aggressive game – I’m from a barrio, so I was not scared playing down there. But some of the other players were nervous after the first challenges went in.”
Not everyone agrees. The subject was raised last week at Athletic Bilbao’s Lezama training ground, surrounded by verdant hills close to the Basque Country.
Several of the first-team players looked young enough to be playing youth football, but Athletic’s B team are in one of Spain’s four regional divisions, a level below Barca B and Madrid’s Castilla.
Gauging opinions among staff, there was a counterpoint to the argument that “real” football is good for young players, because they often get bullied rather than have a chance to improve by playing football.
Barca and Madrid’s reserves are now in Spain’s second division. When the pair meet the crowd can go into five figures, but their average is 3,000. United and Chelsea will play in a showcase game tonight, but it is a competition that will not exist if Dyke’s proposals are pushed through.
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Published: May 13, 2014 04:00 AM