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The Professional Footballers Who Never Play Football
Written by Broganonthewing on Tuesday, 28th Sep 2021 14:18

There have been many changes to the English game in the last 40 years. The majority of these changes, if not all of them have all been influenced or dictated by money, both the making and saving of it.

For a minority of clubs this evolution has been a good thing, sadly in my opinion, it has only benefited the big clubs, the top five or six who challenge for a Champions League place every season.

I do not see any benefit for the clubs outside of the Premier League, certainly not for the majority who do not have billionaire owners or do not have a massive fan base.

There has been one change that I believe has been to the detriment of both clubs and players, in particular my beloved Ipswich have certainly suffered from it. I am talking about the abandonment of reserve team football, the disbanding of the Football Combination and the Central League. I believe that these leagues were closed down to save money but it has proved to be a false economy.

Focusing on Ipswich, the Football Combination was a prime factor in the development of the many talented footballers that came through the system over the years. Mick Mills, Colin Harper, John Wark, Kevin Beattie, David Geddis, Trevor Whymark, Alan Brazil, Eric Gates, Colin Viljoen, Terry Butcher, Clive Woods, Mick Lambert, Brian Talbot, Roger Osborne and many others all learned their trade and developed as footballers playing week in week out for the reserves before graduating to the first team.

The Football Combination in the south and the Central League in the north was where the reserve teams played every Saturday. As a kid my father would take me to Portman Road every week to see one week the first team and the following week the reserves.

In fact my first visit to Portman Road was when I was four or five to see Ipswich reserves play Tottenham reserves, he specifically wanted to see Tommy Harmer who was playing that day for Spurs. Tommy was an England international coming to the end of his career, he had also played for Chelsea.

In those days, all teams had a first team, a reserve team and often an A team that played in a local league. Ipswich’s A team played in the Essex and Suffolk Border League and played their home games at the Cubit & Gotts sports ground that used to be located in Westerfield. I have seen Ted Phillips and Roy Bailey play there for the A team.

The benefits of having a reserve side compete in a competitive league against other reserve sides was at least two fold. Players coming back from injury or out of form and dropped from the first team could compete against their peers to regain their fitness or their form.

Younger players could step up from the youth team and compete against stronger more experienced professionals, which gave them invaluable experience and boosted their development. It was also a good gauge to discover if they were good enough and could compete in the tough world of professional football?

As stated earlier, the absence of competitive reserve football has in my opinion been extremely detrimental to clubs and the Ipswich team today is very much a case in point.

With a professional squad of well over 20 players, only 14 can get any game time in a match. This means at least six players not even lacing their boots up on matchday. Even with a rotation policy, there will be players not playing a proper competitive game of football for weeks, maybe a whole season.

I don’t believe that U23s football or training can give you that edge or sharpness that is required for a full-blooded league match. This means that when a player does get called upon to play who hasn’t played for any length of time he cannot possibly perform to the best of his ability.

It takes a number of matches to regain match fitness and sharpness. Had Freddie Sears two or three seasons ago, who sustained a nasty injury and was out for many months, been able to get a number of old-style reserve team games under his belt before returning to first team action, he would have been much sharper and his contribution much greater. This is no reflection on him or his efforts but sadly a fact that has not benefited him or the club at a time when a fully fit and sharp Freddie would surely have made the team stronger.

So my conclusion is that in this current era, we actually have professional footballers who never play.

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Bramidan added 14:29 - Sep 28
As somebody who watched the boys on Tuesday nights, reserves on Saturday ( couldn't afford to go to Away games I fully agree.
I particularly remember watching Eric Gates and Noddy Talbot coming through.
Reserves was particularly good for those returning from injury and those seeking to get themselves into the first team.
The abandonment of the reserves, no doubt to save money, was another retrograde step for football.
I would bet that it wasn't the professionals in football who reckoned it was a good idea, came from the money men?

ElephantintheRoom added 12:13 - Oct 2
I fully agree with you - but the deathknell for reserve games was surely the endlessly increasing squad sizes and number of substitutes allowed? It's difficult to run a reserves team when a shadow first team is sitting on the bench at first team games. There is also a penchant for loaning out players and releasing them, rather than developing them - and simply borrowing other teams' players. The glee that some (or even most) supporters greeted the creation of the franchise and the demise of an entire era of Ipswich players to be replaced by begged, borrowed and signed mercenaries kind of suggests we are in a very different era.

I dont think many current supporters realise that players like Woods, Whymark, Talbot etc would never have played for Ipswich under the current system because it took them until their early twenties to develop and get into the team. You could argue that Town wouldnt have won the FA Cup in '78 without the intervention of long-term reserve striker Robin Turner either - and that type of player is no longer tolerated either..

I used to love going to the reserve games and wandering to the other end at half time. I think it helped the supporters and the players identify more with the club - and you got to see some emerging or crusty old talent from other teams as well.

tonydinning added 10:37 - Oct 3
Interesting eye opening points there for a younger supporter like me

Saxonblue74 added 18:22 - Oct 5
The land of milk and honey, that's what it's all about. Sadly I can't see it ever changing. When footballers are "worth" £500k+ per week what hope is there? Sadly it filtered all the way down to village football several years ago, where players were coaxed from their local village team by a few quid on a Saturday. I don't think anyone believes our new owners joined us through their love for Ipswich Town!

Europablue added 08:40 - Oct 14
Great article. I'd argue that I don't really care about the top teams who have seemingly benefited from the Premier League, because football fans have suffered in general. What kind of team are you if the majority of your "fans" have never even visited the town the team plays in. What joy do you get from 11 mercenaries (only 8 or 9 if you are lucky).
The bright spot of the last decade or so of following Town is having a passionate local lad in Macauley Bonne playing for his home town club and really cherishing that. The problem with him is that he's a loan player.

atty added 17:55 - Oct 19
I seem to recall that Spurs and West Ham had A teams playing bin the old Eastern Counties league.

Marcus added 20:30 - Oct 24
It's all about the transfer window system. The result is needing deep cover for every position. For example if a goalkeeper is injured then still need someone to be on the bench. Before the transfer window it would mean get someone in on loan at short notice as emergency cover - now squads often have 5-6 keepers to cover all options. Scale that up for every position and top teams have bloated squads, it then propagates through most professional squads resulting in a huge number of professionals who struggle to play a competitive game then get farmed out to the lower leagues as younger replacements fill their squad position. Sadly it means those players are often a bit jaded by the time they find their level with the feeling they could have done so much more at a higher level.

NthQldITFC added 17:34 - Nov 2

ElephantintheRoom added 17:08 - Nov 10
I suppose reserve team football still exists. iTs just called the FA Cup nowadays...and whatever the League Cup now is.
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