Since nursery or feeder clubs are prohibited under FA rules, the practice has been restricted, albeit informally, to Merseyside

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The Independent Online
The bizarre thought occurred to me, after watching Manchester United and Liverpool lose to Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain respectively, that Oxford United remain as our sole representative in Europe - if, that is, one takes the alleged association between the First Division club and the Italian giants Juventus seriously.

In fact, it should be taken with a liberal pinch of salt. The notion of Oxford operating as a so-called nursery club to the team that will probably retain the European Cup is described by the Oxford chairman, Robin Herd, as "very exciting," yet dismissed by the Italians as nothing but "wild imagination" - which suggests there must have been crossed wires somewhere between Turin and Oxfordshire.

So, no Del Piero and Co on show at the Manor Ground, then. However, Juve are no strangers to the concept of nursery clubs. The lack of reserve team football in Italy means the game there supports a system whereby the big clubs regularly "park" young or fringe players at the smaller clubs to fare le orse (literally, make their bones); and Juve and Avellino have traditionally enjoyed that kind of loose relationship.

In England, however, reserve team football serves that purpose (don't let anyone persuade you otherwise, that reserve team results actually matter), and since nursery or "feeder" clubs are prohibited anyway under FA and Football League rules, the practice has been restricted, albeit informally, to Merseyside. Everton have for a while enjoyed an association with Home Farm which has led to the Irish side changing their name to Home Farm Everton and playing in Everton blue (quite what Everton have got out of it is questionable since Home Farm's most famous export, Ronnie Whelan, ended up at Liverpool); while Liverpool themselves recently announced "an alliance" with Crewe aimed primarily at bringing about "closer liaison between the training and coaching staffs of both clubs with regard to the development of young players", and which in no way threatens the smaller club's autonomy. Apparently.

The tryst began sweetly on Valentine's Day, but is anything but romantic. While it obviously suits Liverpool to have first option on young players of the calibre of Fran Tierney, Gareth Whalley and Danny Murphy, football has always prided itself on its championing of the underdog, on nurturing the dream that David will one day overcome Goliath; and with memories of the cup exploits of Chesterfield and Stockport still fresh in the minds of football idealists, you can understand those who believe such alliances will end up stripping smaller clubs of their identities.

"It could be a visionary move which we know makes sense," admits Jules Hornbrook of the Crewe fanzine Super Dario Land. "But football isn't about sense. Too much passion has already been stripped from the game and this is another step towards a nondescript system where results are insignificant and razzmatazz is all."

Unhappily, it might become the only option open to smaller clubs who, without a sugar daddy on the horizon, find their existence threatened by an acute lack of cash in these post-Bosman times. Give any beleaguered club chairman the choice between becoming bankrupt or becoming a nursery club, and I think I know which option he'd choose. Hull City, for example, currently under threat from a winding up order, wouldn't have had to undersell their 19-year-old goalkeeper extraordinaire, Roy Carroll, to Wigan for pounds 300,000 had they been a feeder club for, says, Leeds United.

OK, so they'd have to accept that Carroll - and their best players - would eventually move on, but that's already reality for all but the top clubs; at least the nursery club system would guarantee them survival.

Of course were the practice ever to become commonplace, Leeds might be more likely to seek an alliance with Hull than they would do with their traditional rivals, Bradford.

Perhaps I'm preoccupied by the idea of all things nursery since I recently took a short sabbatical from this column for the arrival of baby Blair (she arrived, incidentally, with timing reminiscent of Gary Lineker at his peak, between Final Score and Match of the Day).

But Bill Hunter, chairman of Scottish Second Division side Livingston, has a more worthy reason for his preoccupation; namely, that an alliance between an English and a Scottish club would avoid the kind of conflict of interests that might arise between clubs operating in the same League. And while his suggestion that, say Newcastle, would benefit from linking up with a Scottish Second Division side, albeit one he describes as having "a vast, untapped potential", might sound faintly ludicrous, Hunter is adamant that Livingston are going places, and that the alliance would be mutually beneficial.

Hunter's view has not always been appreciated by his more traditional contemporaries. "I'm perceived as something of a radical," he admits. "But in football you have to have vision, and I honestly believe that Livingston will be in the Premier Division within the next seven years." Unless there are enough chairmen out there who genuinely share Hunter's optimism, then the idea of nursery clubs could mature very quickly in the seasons to come. Whether we like it or not.

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