Football: Stage for exotic and neurotic: When Saturday seldom comes: Phil Shaw on the strange life of reserve team football

ASTON VILLA and Manchester United clash on Saturday afternoon, but the outcome will have no bearing on the championship, there may be barely a thousand spectators and anyone turning up at Villa Park or Old Trafford is wasting their time.

If that sounds odd, the strangest aspect of the game is its scheduling. For this is a showcase for the 'stiffs' who normally come out at night; the great unwatched for whom Saturday seldom comes. A reserve match.

Virtually all second-team football in England - which in the main means the Pontins (nee Central) League serving the North and Midlands and the Neville Ovenden (Football) Combination - in the South - is now staged in midweek. The fixtures are a fixture in the press, but behind the small print big changes are taking place.

Some are superficial. For example, Villa reserves will receive United at Walsall; United's adopted home is Bury. Chelsea's second string spare Stamford Bridge's turf by sharing at Kingstonian, Charlton and Bristol Rovers play at Welling and Yate respectively, while Wimbledon and Crystal Palace share the former's old Plough Lane ground. Crowds, which at places like United and Coventry were between 5,000 and 10,000 in the 1960s, tend to be in the hundreds.

The real difference, however, is in personnel. Two decades ago, when the teenaged Mervyn Day was West Ham's Combination keeper, the concept of the squad system was in its infancy and each of the regulars had an understudy. When he was with Villa, eight years ago, the first team and reserves still trained separately. Now 37 and back in the Leeds side, Day has for the last three years shared a reserve dressing-room with some disparate and exotic talents.

'We've got 30 pros whereas at West Ham we had 50, which no one can afford nowadays,' he said. 'At the start of the season our reserve midfield was Strachan, Rocastle, Hodge and Sellars . . . we called it 'the dream team'. But it's more common to have a side with a sprinkling of young pros, the odd junior, established players who are out of favour or coming back from injury, and maybe a trialist.'

In the last category, Day's transient team-mates have ranged from foreigners 'being hawked around by agents' to Vauxhall Conference hopefuls; no one wants to buy without checking the goods. Leeds have had internationals like Nikolai Iliev (Bulgaria) and Yuri Nikiferov (Ukraine) - plus others from Italy, Finland, Trinidad, Poland and the Faroes - as well as Paul Devlin (Stafford) and Deion Vernon (Bath).

It can be a case of trial and errors. 'There was one guy from eastern Europe who played sweeper for his country,' Day recalled. 'We tried him at centre-half against Nottingham Forest, who've been the best team for several years and are top again now. He was an absolute disaster. Suffice to say he was substituted at half-time. By the end of the game he'd gone, and the boys never saw him again.'

The aforementioned Devlin, now with Notts County, was spotted by Graeme Souness and given a trial with Liverpool. One day he was combining work as a roofer on a building site with part-time football. The next he was partnering Ian Rush, then recovering after surgery, in the reserves at West Bromwich Albion.

'I was slightly overawed,' Devlin admitted. 'I thought Rush would think I was some 19-year-old who'd never done anything. But he was very helpful, telling me where I should be and encouraging me. So was Jamie Redknapp. I ended up scoring the winner.'

When Souness and Stafford failed to agree a fee, he was offered a run-out by Leeds. 'I partnered Kalman Kovacs, a Hungarian on trial from Auxerre in France. Though he couldn't speak English and we didn't really hit it off, they asked me back. But I didn't feel part of things. Only a couple of players bothered to talk to me.'

Devlin is still learning his trade in County's reserves, where a recent opponent was Henrik Larsen, from Denmark's European Championship-winning team, himself following Hans Gillhaus and Frank McAvennie as a Villa trialist.

His experience is not untypical. Wolves' sixth-choice keeper, 16- year-old David Dale, faced an array of pounds 1m players against Manchester United this month, while Northwich's Tony Hemmings was becoming the third player this season to swap Conference for Combination briefly with West Ham.

But at Wimbledon, vying with Chelsea for the Combination title, the reserves are a specific unit with a more old-fashioned function. 'We try to build a team atmosphere,' Brian Sparrow, the coach, explained. 'Four days a week the reserves train together, and two afternoons they do skill sessions. We're looking for continuity, to groom players for the seniors. My right-back, Peter Fear, for instance, is going to be a very good player.'

Sparrow, who spent much of his career in Arsenal's reserves, believes an over-emphasis on winning at schoolboy level has had a damaging knock-on effect on technical standards. Not that his team play for fun. 'The nucleus who play every week want to win this league. First-teamers coming back from injury are good to have because they're hungry, though the ones who've been dropped can be hard to lift.

'Going to Highbury or White Hart Lane is nice, but we only get about 70 at our games. There were a few more when we played Palace this month. We lost 2-1 in a tough match - spirits were running high and there was the odd flare-up. London rivalry ensures the games are competitive.'

The same week, Stoke reserves drew 1-1 with a Blackburn team which cost pounds 3m. Stoke's coach, Peter Henderson, who used to partner Rush for Chester, found his satisfaction tempered by concern. 'We came up from the lower division last season, and I've been surprised the standard isn't better,' he said. 'We should struggle against the Liverpools and Evertons, but until Leeds beat us 5-1 in December no one had scored more than two against us.'

Henderson, who has recently used trialists from Partizan Belgrade and the Australian Olympic XI, had fielded six Second Division regulars against Leeds. Their normal 'adrenalin buzz' was missing. 'Next game, we went to Manchester United with our proper reserve side and won 2-1.'

Sparrow reckons managing the reserves is the hardest job at the club. 'You've got to keep players motivated who feel they should be in the first team. I try to instil in them that they're striving to achieve that or get a transfer. To the young lads I'm saying: 'Your contract's up soon'. '

At Stoke, whose reserves are holding their own and drawing four-figure crowds, Henderson uses similar psychology. 'I tell the players that if they're not going to get in the League team, to think of all the managers and scouts who are watching. When we play at home, on Thursdays, we're often the only game on.

'It's the same team talk every week - I tell them winning is everything, though it's actually not that important. We always make it competitive, but it's more of a breeding situation.'

Breeding anticlimax sometimes, according to Day: 'After years of focusing all my thoughts on Saturday it was hard to adjust to playing midweek only.' Devlin, just starting his career, is already echoing the reserve's lament. 'As a footballer, your whole preparation is geared towards Saturdays. Sometimes, when I get up and I'm not in the first team, I don't know what to do.'

(Photograph omitted)

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