There was a shake up of reserve team football yesterday, as the Premier Reserve League was scraped and replaced with a Professional Development League. The new competition limits clubs to just three outfield players over the age of 21, plus an overage goalkeeper in a matchday squad.
Reading will compete in the competition and have also confirmed that at least two matches will be played at the Madejski Stadium, potentially giving fans the chance to see fringe players live for the first time since the reserves moved behind closed doors at Hogwood Park a few years ago.
We'll look into the impact and ramifications of the move below the jump.
The key points of the new league are as follows.
- Teams must consist of players who were 21 or under on January 1, 2012.
- Clubs are permitted three overage players in the squad plus one goalkeeper.
- The League is split into three national divisions, with Reading playing in Group 1 alongside Bolton , Norwich, Everton, West Ham, Blackburn, Arsenal and West Brom.
- The other teams include the rest of the Premier League (excluding QPR, Swansea & Wigan) plus six Championship sides.
- Reading will play all teams in group 1 home and away, with two of our home games scheduled to be played at the Madejski Stadium. (ticket details to follow)
- The top three teams from Groups 1 and 2 and the top two sides in Group 3 advance to a Elite Group Stage in the New Year, with the lower placed teams going into Qualification Groups Tier 1 and 2.
- Play-off rounds, semi-finals and a final will then be held at the end of the season to confirm the overall champions.
- Matches will take place between Fridays and Mondays.
- It's unconfirmed at the time of writing but the 23 teams involved are believed to be those that have applied for Category 1 Academy Status in the EPPP, the new youth development system agreed last year, which you can read more on here.
While on the surface this might seem like a big shake up, in reality it's more framing rules around what the old reserve league had developed into.
The majority of clubs had long been fielding development sides, with just a sprinkling of first teamers thrown in, usually when recovering from injury. For example here's the two lineups from Liverpool against Manchester United last April.
Man Utd: Johnstone; Vermijl (Giverin 88), M.Keane, De Laet, Fryers; Cole (Fornasier 65), Thorpe, Tunnicliffe, Petrucci, Lingard (Blackett 92); W.Keane. Subs not used: Jacob, Ekangamene.
Liverpool: Gulacsi, Mendy, Robinson, Sama, Wisdom, Coady, Suso, Roberts, Morgan (Eccleston 45), Adorjan, Ngoo. Subs unused: McGiveron, Ward, Roddan, Smith.
Barely a first team squad member in sight and for the majority of the top teams the scrapping of the old league is really not going to make a huge difference.
But how will it impact Reading's reserve team strategy.
Our reserves enjoyed two years in the Premier Reserve League between 2006-2008, memorably winning the national title under Brian McDermott back in 2007, when Bolton were defeated 2-0 in front of arund 5,000 fans at the Madejski Stadium. That team contained the likes of Alex Pearce, Simon Church and Simon Cox with the odd fringe player occasionally thrown in, even back then Steve Coppell treated our reserves as more of a development team than a side designed to keep his fringe players playing regular football.
With relegation we were forced back into the Football Combination and played the likes of Aldershot and Gillingham's reserves, which with all due respect, was pitifully weak opposition. With that in mind there was little surprise to see Reading withdraw from the league altogether before the 2011/12 season. In place of reserve league football, the club decided to arrange sporadic friendlies against a range of teams up and down the country, with no real noticeable detriment to the squad.
Back to the present day and will the new curb on over-age players force us to change our lineups from the reserves last year? Well not judging by some of the teams we fielded last season. Here's one from November.
Mikkel Andersen; John Goddard, Angus MacDonald, Jake Cooper, Frankie Raymond; Cameron Edwards (sub David Murphy 75 mins), Ethan Gage, Lawson D'Ath, Jordan Obita; Jacob Walcott, Gozie Ugwu
And another from April..
Jon Henley; Andy Griffin, Angus MacDonald, Matthew Connolly (sub Carl McHugh 61 mins), Joseph Mills; Nick Arnold (sub Craig Tanner 72 mins), Jon Goddard, Jack Mills (sub Josh Webb h/t), Jordan Obita; Gozie Ugwu, Jacob Walcott (sub David Murphy 78 mins)
I've bolded those players that would have classed as overage in the new system. (presuming the age cut of was under 21 in Jan 2011)
Only two players out of 32 would have taken up an over aged player slot and considering we're allowed three per game it's not something that's likely to cause a great amount of trouble for Chris Cummins next season based on precedent.
There's also the fact that Reading will be allowed to name seven subs in the league and cup competitions next season, meaning 18 players will be involved in the first team in some shape or form every week, lessening the need for regular reserve team football. If you assume three more could play in the reserves as over aged players (or 4 if you count a keeper) then you're looking at just 3 or 4 players who won't have exposure to competitive football in a particular week.
The nature of the emergency loan system also means Reading have the ability to loan players to Football League clubs for most of the season so there's always a chance for say Simon Church or Hal Robson-Kanu to go get a few games under their belts if they need sharpening up.
So while it won't hurt or hinder the first team, what this new league will do is provide a better challenge for Reading's young players between the ages of 18-21 who are too old to play in the Premier Academy League but still remain training with the club. With clubs able to supplement their 25-man squads with as many U21 players as they like, it now means that players such as Jordan Obita and Jake Taylor can get regular games against good young players if they stay as cover rather than just sporadic friendlies or be forced out on loan constantly. The quality of the Academies at teams like Arsenal and Everton is impressive and their development sides will provide a better challenge for those staying at the Madejski.
Also, while it's not exactly the Premier League, FA/League Cup or even the FA Youth Cup, it's still good for young players to be playing for a trophy as it gives a little extra incentive to win matches, which can't hurt the competitiveness of the games. I also like the fact that the second half of the season puts the best teams together, meaning that teams who are actively fielding better sides and trying to win will get better competition.
The other tangible benefit is to the fans who will now get to see some of these younger players for themselves. Previously our reserves, like our Academy sides. have been hidden away behind closed doors at Hogwood Park, and while the majority of games will still be played at the training ground, the games against West Brom and Norwich are both set to be played at the Madejski Stadium. As someone that went along to the Youth Cup game last year as well as some development friendlies this summer, I can testify to the enjoyment and good knowledge you get watching younger players and it's always a bit more satisfying seeing a youngster make his debut when you've seen him before and have an idea of his strengths and weaknesses.
Will the league survive and flourish long term? I guess that depends on how the EPPP and UEFA's Financial Fair Play rules shape squads and youth setups over the next few years. Scottish Football tried to introduce an U21 league a few years ago but it was scrapped after just a few seasons, in favour of a return to regular reserve setups. This increase in the level of competition for younger players could also help stifle any attempts by the bigger sides to try and get 'B' sides into the lower divisions as happens in Spain.
Overall it looks like a win/win situation for Reading. The fringe and youth players should get a decent level of regular competition and will have something semi-meaningful to play for. The fans will also get to see some games and it will give the club a bit more flexibility when deciding how they want to develop players in the future, whether its playing in the Development League or going out on loan.
So what do you make of the move? Will you be going along to some of the games at the Madejski? Let us know below