The future of reserve team football at non-league level hangs in the balance, say those involved in the game, writes Andrew Clayton.
For almost the entire history of competitive football, second string sides have provided a chance for players and managers to gain valuable experience for themselves and their club, all the while creating a pathway to the first team.
At the highest echelons, professional outfits are able to enter their reserves into specific competitions while, in the grassroots game, the second team can be typically found at a more regional level, distinct from their squad-mates but a part of the same family.
In the last decade, however, an invisible strain on the sport has become greater. The combination of rising administrative costs and player wages, as well as a dwindling number of committed, local players who are available to train and play each week, has been felt right across the board.
While more sensationalist headlines proclaim that the recent outbreak of Covid-19 could kill off non-league football in one foul swoop, those in the game know their own situations and, in reality, football will always be found on a pitch somewhere on a Saturday. But, changes will have to be made.
In recent weeks, a number of clubs at step three and below have come to the decision, for various reasons, to scrap their reserve teams. Former Conference side Poole Town revealed their intentions to do away with a second string and instead build a playing relationship with New Milton Town in Division One of the Wessex League where former Poole reserves manager, Paul Turner, had taken the helm.
Western League high-flyers Tavistock, meanwhile, made the difficult decision to dissolve their unbeaten reserves side, for reasons club chairman Shaun Greening described as ‘purely financial’.
The Lambs’ second XI were unbeaten in the Devon Football League South-West Division when play was stopped, but with the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak beginning to creep in, the board was forced to act to protect the club’s viability.
Greening told The Independent: “It was purely down to finances. We’ve lost some income because of the virus and closing down our club and we have to pay for our changing rooms and various facilities.
“It was felt, as a club, if we wanted to continue with any sort of financial ability, one team would have to give. We haven’t just let the reserves go, either, we’ve had to make other adjustments within the club to ensure we don’t fall into the red.
“It’s not something we wanted to do, but, as a club, we didn’t see that we had any other choice.”
Southern League stalwarts Bristol Manor Farm, meanwhile, have opted to withdraw their reserves from the Bristol Combination League. Despite management duo Andy Parry and Tony Perry steering the side to the top of Division One, similarly to Poole Town the decision was made in order to allow younger players to cut their teeth in the Western League, by fostering relationships with local clubs.
Speaking to The Independent, Manor Farm’s first-team boss and head of football Lee Lashenko stressed that the plan was motivated by football and not finances.
“It’s something I’ve been thinking over for a couple of seasons, trying to bridge the gap between the young players we’ve got coming through to the first-team. We needed to cheat a couple of seasons of promotion, in effect, to get these lads playing a Western League standard.
“The overview of our club is a five-year plan to getting into Conference football and we need to progress players as quickly as possible. But, we need to do that in a way without affecting our own facilities, having one pitch.
“It’s nothing to do with the outbreak or finances. We just want to make sure we have players that potentially are going to be Southern League footballers or beyond that.”
The outbreak of coronavirus, however, has several clubs trying to formulate a plan in ever-changing circumstances. Tavistock’s Greening admits it is ‘very possible’ others will follow the same route and pull the plug on their reserves for long-term stability.
“Our income comes from sponsors and that is going to be difficult to persuade, when they are going to be very hard up in the forthcoming season,” he added. “Things have gotten harder financially in football. This may be a complete reset of what grassroots can afford.”
While Lashenko agrees that the future of first-team football remained uncertain, he sounded a warning to those at the grassroots end.
“I think certain clubs are going to condense themselves,” he added. “But, at that level when it’s more locally based, you need involvement in a club. Certain ones, at a standard, will look to fold their reserves but that should be for footballing reasons. Sometimes, you are better off having more teams, even if you have a financial problem in the present, because you’re getting more people around the club, more money over the bar.
“Clubs need to think carefully because sometimes, that decision might not be the right one. I just hope that football doesn’t become a skeleton structure. You want Saturdays for when parents can come and watch their kids play and you want clubs out there because competition is key.”