The Premier League is to re-launch the current reserve team competitions as a national under-21s league, to provide game time for elite young players who are languishing on the bench, The Independent has learned.
The League's 20 clubs have agreed that games in the new Premier League Reserve League will take place at weekends and may shadow those between the first teams where possible. But they will come after Premier League matches, allowing those players who have made the bench in the elite division, but gained little or no playing time, the opportunity to play in a high-quality second-string game. The new league seems likely to be fully established for the 2013/14 season, rather than this August – because the clubs are yet to agree on how many over-age players each side should be allowed to field, ensuring the league offers a means of older players returning to full fitness.
The new league aims to resolve a critical problem in the English game, of the best young talent getting minimal competitive football in squads packed with expensive acquisitions. "By the time I came through the non-league system I'd not received that much coaching but I had 250 games behind me," said England's caretaker manager and under-21 manager Stuart Pearce. "Too many of my players at under-21 level haven't had enough game time. Of that squad I may only have had eight or nine who played on the Saturday. Now that's a crying shame."
The Independent can reveal that a national under-18 league is also to be established for all Premier League and Football League clubs which attain Category 1 status – the highest grading under the new Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) – in another attempt to better develop young players.
It is unclear whether the under-21 league, which clubs with a Category 1 youth development grading under EPPP will join, will carry any commercial opportunities, though there may be some prospect of that if adequate interest is kindled in a competition which could give, for example, Chelsea's Josh McEachran or Liverpool's Raheem Sterling game time they might otherwise miss on a bench the day before.
The current Premier Reserve League is split into a northern and southern division but four clubs – Manchester City, QPR, Stoke and Tottenham – do not field sides, and the competition has certainly faded badly since Kevin Keegan dealt it a significant blow by removing Newcastle United in the mid-1990s. Its inadequacy for player development was highlighted in January when Andre Villas Boas, then Chelsea manager, suggested Premier League clubs should be allowed to field reserve sides in the Football League. The Football League called this "offensive", but Everton manager David Moyes has since disclosed that he was thwarted in his own plan to play an Everton 'B' team in the Football Conference in an attempt to upgrade competitive levels for his young players. Newcastle United manager Alan Pardew has also said he is "looking closely" at the wisdom of continuing with the Reserve League in its current format.
There is also dissatisfaction among clubs with stronger youth set-ups at the standard of under-18s opposition. The success of last season's Under-19s European NextGen tournament, in which Internazionale defeated Liverpool's semi-final opponents Ajax in the final at Leyton Orient, has proved the value of elite opposition. Manchester City's intention to compete again next year is based on their belief that the experience of overseas travel to play and encounter different systems have been invaluable.
The new national under-18s league will provide better competition for top youth sides on a more regular basis. Damien Comolli, director of football at Liverpool – whose 6-0 home defeat to Ajax in the NextGen semi-final revealed a gulf in class – told the LFC Magazine last week that "we want to play against the best". He said: "From day one we have told the Premier League the principle of the best against the best, and playing and training with the best will get our backing. Recently, we played against Manchester United in the under-15s and it was technically a very good game with a high quality of football played."
In France, reserve teams may enter the professional pyramid and play as high as the fourth tier – England's League Two – and although that seems unworkable in England, the former France technical director Gerard Houllier is among those urging changes. "In England you lose a lot of players between 18 and 21," he said. "The two countries who are failing are England and Italy. I knew one or two players [when manager] at Aston Villa who did not have enough games to play at the top level. Between 18 and 20 there is nothing. In France when they don't play on a Saturday, they can play for the reserves the next day."