Football: Quality control that leaves nothing in the reserves

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AMONG the many ramifications of Howard Wilkinson's Charter for Quality, the long-term aim of which is to re-establish English football as a world force is that the country's 83-year-old reserve leagues are in danger of becoming as dispensable as the big 50p piece.

Under the terms of the Charter, the Avon Insurance Combination (southern teams) and the Pontins League (northern) will be replaced by under-21 leagues (with provision for three over-age players per team) open to the 32 clubs (so far) who have committed to replacing their centres of excellence with new-fangled "academies".

Some argue that the change is long overdue and that we lag behind the Europeans in retaining reserve leagues, anyway. In Spain, for example, the top sides nurture nursery as opposed to reserve teams; while in Italy Serie A sides arrange friendlies for players returning from injury and frequently "park" young players with Serie B and C sides for experience (which is a practice the major players in Scottish football are considering.)

However, to label our reserve leagues merely as poor relations would be to miss their point, since they have been integral to the game over the years. Invaluable as a stage for young players to dress rehearse for the real thing, and in providing competitive match practice for recuperating stars, they also give managers the chance to run the rule over those on the first-team fringes.

Among those who graced reserve team football last season, for instance, were the likes of Ian Wright, Ruud Gullit and Ryan Giggs, as well as promising youngsters such as Kieron Dyer (Ipswich), Carl Cort (Wimbledon) and Alex Notman of Manchester United, whose goals helped United retain their Pontins League title by an eight-point margin. Down south the honours went to Wimbledon, who won the Avon Insurance Combination Championship and to Ipswich, who won the Avon Insurance Enterprise Award for their "Family Night Scheme" which attracted huge crowds to reserve games.

Mind you, reserve team football does not always have to rely on incentive schemes. In August 1996, 8,969 people watched Patrick Berger make his debut in a reserve game between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, while two months later 8,968 saw Andy Cole, making his Manchester United comeback in a reserve match, break his leg in a tackle with Neil Ruddock. Both crowds, however, pale into insignificance compared to the 22,600 who saw Duncan Ferguson get out of gaol for a 1995 Old Firm reserve clash.

Rangers have been criticised recently for investing in expensive, mediocre foreigners instead of in youth, but at least they have preserved their reserves. Newcastle infamously disbanded theirs altogether under Kevin Keegan (Kenny Dalglish has since reinstated them) which has meant a glut of toothless foreigners at St James' Park instead of young talent like Darren Huckerby, who was released because Newcastle could offer him no competitive football.

Ironically, that is the key to the concept of the academies according to one of their major proponents. The Charlton first-team coach, Les Reed, who claims the academies are "the best thing to happen to English football in years", says the emphasis will now be on development rather than competition; specifically, on coaching rather than on playing.

In other words, those players not involved with the first team or the under-21 leagues will be coached, the academies granting them a statutory number of hours coaching per week instead of subjecting them to countless draining reserve-team fixtures.

So it looks like the end of the road for reserve-team football in its present guise, even if this week's agreement to defer the process of change until next season gives it a year's grace. Still, the reserve leagues are offering a spirited resistance, albeit one which has a rather doomed air. In fact the Combination secretary, Neville Chamberlain, claims they will "carry on regardless" in the face of what he describes as the "restrictive measures being placed on up-and-coming professionals by the powers that be, who think they have the God-given right to wield a big stick whenever they see fit".

Chamberlain has received applications from six clubs wanting to replace those who will be opting out, but as they are the likes of Reading, Gillingham and Bournemouth, it is obvious that the reserve leagues will be considerably weakened.

The Combination will certainly be without Charlton who, having beaten the leaders, Arsenal, this week in front of 7,500 to establish a club record of 18 reserve games unbeaten (and go 1,039 minutes without conceding a goal), now have 58 points to Arsenal's 59 with five games in hand. They haven't won the Combination since 1950, so are looking to go out with a bang.