Unsurprisingly, Jose Mourinho talks and the media jumps. This time, the proverbial cat thrown into the pigeons concerned the prospect of the Reserve team of Chelsea playing in the Championship, Mourinho asserting that his clubs second string could more than hold their own in the Championship. Arsene Wenger meanwhile agreed with the principle but believed that the French model worked better with Reserves playing in the bottom rung of the professional setup.
British football is somewhat unique in Western Europe in that the Reserves do not compete with other clubs first teams. In spite of the fragility of the financial states of a large proportion of Professional Clubs in England, there is a robustness to the Professional structure that does not exist elsewhere. To quantify that, the attendances are substantially higher in the English Lower Divisions than elsewhere in Europe. The Spanish for example average around 15,000 at Segundo Division matches. Saturdays Championship matches averaged an attendance in excess of 20,000 with one more to be played on Sunday. Indeed, the lowest attendance of those matches was 12,101 at Plymouth v Hull, possibly the most geographically disparate meeting that those two teams have all season. But it is when you step into the equivalents of Leagues 1 & 2 that the real difference becomes apparent. Using Spain as an example again, the Tricero Division attendances average about 1,500 which is something that you would expect from a Nationwide Conference programme, the League 1 & 2 averages were treble and double the Spaniards average.
Within the current structure in England there is no way to accommodate the suggestion of Reserve teams. In order to do so, Leagues 1 & 2 would have to be regionalised into perhaps four divisions of sixteen teams (North and South in each Division), increasing the total from 48 clubs to 64. This would mean inviting perhaps the current top five of the Conference plus half of the Reserves of the Premiership sides, to compete on a weekly basis. However, would this make the existing clubs anymore sustainable than they currently are. In geographic terms, the distances travelled should theoretically rule out the need for overnight stays thus cutting costs. Another theory is that attendances would improve through having more local derbies. The evidence of this is purely anecdotal for the comparative figures were from over fifty years ago, the regional sections of the Football League running from 1921- 1958 prior to the current structure coming into existence.
The biggest hurdle would however appear to be practical. Where would these Reserve sides play? Much of the support in the weekend’s media was based on the assumption that Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United & co would play their games at their home stadia. This is absolute nonsense; there is no way that any club would allow their pursuit of the Premiership crown to be hampered by the Reserves tearing up the pitch at, for example Old Trafford, whilst entertaining Rochdale. More likely is that existing Ground Sharing arrangements would continue at such luminaries as Borehamwood, Bury and Aldershot. Perhaps one avenue to pursue would be to enforce a rule whereby the Reserves have to share a professional clubs ground, meaning that Arsenal would be forced to look at Barnet or Orient for example, in order to increase revenues for other League clubs.
The second practicality concerns Promotion. At what point do you stop promoting the Reserve teams? In most other European leagues where this setup exists, there is a ceiling where the teams can compete to: Spain prevents them from gaining promotion to La Liga, not that it is much of an issue there with only Castilla (Real Madrid’s Nursery Club) in the Segundo Division. Personally, I would agree with that limit being put in place here so that the teams can go no higher than the Championship. But what happens if you end up with all of the Reserve sides in that Division? It could be seen as a death knell for competitive football if they occupy eleven of the say twenty two places? Looking at the records of the Reserves in cup matches in recent years, it is not too fanciful a situation.
The alternative to this is that Premiership clubs buy lower division clubs and turn them into Nursery Clubs. Regulations currently prevent this but rules can quite easily be changed. I believe this to be an unlikely course of action though for any club purchased would surely lose local support and links to the local community. One thing that ought to prevent this from happening is the Supporters themselves, setting up a trust may become a more urgent need if this scenario arose.
I am unconvinced that the suggestion of Reserve teams coming into the Football League is a good idea, it smacks of protectionism by the bigger clubs. They have nothing to offer the rest of football, these teams now effectively under-21’s as opposed to the Reserves of yesteryear who contained a large number of the first team squad. There is surely little draw for crowds in that respect. However, were the prospect of the Football League unilaterally deciding this route then there is little that the supporter can do but kiss goodbye to football as we know it.