Over the last few days, our youth development programmes have come to the fore once again, with the publicity gained from the clubs in the latter stages of the Youth Cup and the Development League. The next generation of young players, expected to make the jump from u20’s football and playing with their contemporaries, straight into the cauldron of the first team. In the last two years, I have watched Celtic, Rangers, Hearts, Motherwell and Partick Thistle all playing u20 football. What I see is tippy-tappy stuff, where no squad ever ‘hurts’ the other team. When I say hurts, I don’t mean in a physical sense (although there is no question in my mind it does lack a competitive edge), I mean in the sense of getting in behind the opposition, penetration and the desire to make runs beyond strikers and a determination to be better than your opponent. There is a lack of tempo to many of the games at that level and all I can see is football being played like it’s a training exercise. Balls continually being knocked across the back four, occasionally breaking between the line to midfield and then more square ball football until it’s back at the goalie.
Sure, we’re teaching our players the technical skills required for stepping up to the first team. Pass and move, dribbling, using both feet (another myth but I’ll speak about that another time), but how many of them are REALLY prepared for it, for the physical AND mental challenges that await them when they step up. Very few.
Development Leagues have their place, in developing talent, but I believe for many, it is too big a step to go straight from playing against youth players of the same age and, going straight into the first team. Of course, there are exceptional players who can comfortably make the transition, but they’d be even better having been prepared by being street wise in the ways of a hardened pro. How can you not learn ‘the game’ from going toe-to-toe with a John Rankin on his way back from injury or a Jim Goodwin trying to kick lumps out of you on his way back from suspension? With the current financial climate, we not only need to develop top talent, but also the ‘club’ footballer. The player who fills most first teams teams week in, week out. The sort of guy who, while at your club, will help develop those talented young players with his know-how and experience, showing them the football ropes and nurturing and aggressive, winning attitude among our young players. I’m well aware there is the capability to play a couple of over age players in the Development League, but it’s really not the same. I also know the financial argument of having bigger squads to cope with an extra game. But there are ways around it.
Bringing back reserve team football may not be the answer to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, but I believe it will help us produce more players by bridging that gap between the Youth team and the first team. Even the superstars and the exceptionals will benefit from a grounding in the reserves; it may even knock some of their prima donna ways out of them before it’s too late. One thing I am certain of, very few negatives ever came from playing in the ‘stiffs’ and, the hunger derived from playing reserve team football, and the desire to see the back of it and force your way past the senior players you are playing alongside can only benefit the development of youth players. Much more than any ‘Development’ League.
I’m well qualified to talk about reserve football. If caps had been given out for making 2nd and 3rd team appearances, I’d have more caps than the Hassan twins put together. In a lengthy career, I only made around 300 first team appearances. Disappointing, but understandable when you consider for the first five years, from the age of 16-21 I was a reserve player. It also wasn’t helped by the fact that once I reached 28, my individual leg muscles resembled a packet of Cheestrings and would tear just as easily. On the constant, painful, comeback from injury trail, there is no doubt in my mind that, as well as 300 first team games, from those early years to my ‘hamstring’ years, I equalled that number in reserve matches.
Back then at Hibs, the experience of reserve matches was incredible. When the first team played on a Saturday, the reserves would play the opposite fixture. That meant running out in front of a couple of hundred at Ibrox, Celtic Park, Tannadice and Pittodrie. You were still treated like a king though, experiencing the dressing rooms, hospitality and big, wide demanding (and sometimes overwhelming) pitches. I am aware these days, it may be economically impractical to have two squads playing on the same day, but what’s to stop them playing reserve games on a Sunday, or a Monday night or any other day for that matter? I’m certain the fans would support it too. A Sunday afternoon reserve game after the first team have played on the Saturday, where those players who missed out, get their fitness alongside half a dozen 18-20 year olds anyone? The clubs too have a responsibility to introduce their players to the stadium. Public parks and an empty Lesser Hampden are an insult to our young talent. Scrap the current under 20’s Development League where players are asked to play on junior grounds and training pitches in front of one man and his dog. Tell me they won’t get more from going back to playing in the big stadiums, travelling to the ground, mixing in the dressing room with senior pro’s. You’ll learn a lot more about your young prospects because if they can’t handle playing alongside big players at an empty Tynecastle, how are they going to handle the intimidation of a full one?
Surely the two years development money saved between the ages of 18-20, will be enough to make a return to the Reserve League an option? Filtered back in to bolster first team squads with one or two more experienced players and three or four more kids. The result? More kids through to the first team at an earlier stage AND with a better knowledge of the game.
Romantic? Maybe. Practical? I don’t see why not. But I know it’s got to be worth a try, because at the moment, our Development is not producing players. I wasn’t the greatest player in the world, far from it, but what I learned in those reserve games, stood me in good stead for the rigours of being a full time pro.
I played in Ian Durrant’s comeback match at Ibrox, a reserve match in front of 15,000. Whether it would happen today, I doubt it as they would probably ease him back at Murray Park or Benburb Juniors. There were Reserve League East cup finals, derby matches where the fringe players would be going hammer and tongs in front of a few thousand fans. And it was in one of those early Hibs v Hearts Reserve League matches, I was not only to give out a lesson, I was to be on the end of one as well.
In my first Edinburgh derby reserve game, I was to pit my wits for the first time (but certainly not the last) against John Robertson. Robbo was a terrific striker. Not the quickest but he was sharp and had the mind of a predator, sniffing out goals with his guile and movement. But let me tell you, Robbo was no shrinking violet. He’d cut you in two as quick as getting across the front post to get a header in, given half the chance. I went on to become very good friends with Robbo over the years after we went through a lot of the same coaching courses together. It’s a funny thing that, and something that fans don’t always understand. Great rivals on the pitch can become good friends off it. There’s usually a respect there and it was during one of those courses we struck up a conversation about playing against each other.
Being the player I was I’d have ran through anything to get the ball and asthis was my first derby (reserve) match I felt I had to make my mark. Robbo went on to tell me that he didn’t know who I was before the game and his first recollection of me was after about 20 minutes. Hearts got a throw-in over near the corner flag, their left back took it and bounced the ball to Robbo. As it sat up, he chested it and at that point he recalls feeling a bump in his back and then a whooshing sound as my right boot came flashing past his right shoulder and clipped his ear, before following through and knocking the ball back out for another throw-in. All well and good. But what Robbo had conveniently failed to remember was I had already got my first lesson in Hearts hospitality after precisely four minutes and that mine was no more than a retaliatory act. The Hearts right back had stood a diagonal ball up and as it floated perfectly on to my head, I could see no other outcome but a comfortable clearance. That is, until I switched off for a second and as I glanced it away, I hadn’t set myself for the mini juggernaut coming just a fraction late and as I turned my head after contact, a shoulder coming from the opposite direction, connected square with my chin. Funny how he never remembered that part, but for me it was a lesson in senior, experienced players can not only take liberties with, they can teach you football lessons that live with you for years to come.
Would I ever have got a lesson like that nan u20’s Development game, I doubt it. Are we doing our talented young players a disservice by depriving them of this harshest of ‘school of hard knocks?’ Almost certainly. We’re not producing the level of sustainable footballer we did 20 years ago and whilst Development squads up to the age of 18 certainly have their place, there is no doubt in my mind a return to the Reserve League would plug that difficult gap between youth football and the first team. Surely it’s got to be worth a try. Even if, God forbid, it does mean one or two of them have to take a wee rap on the chin now and again.
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