By Matt Birch
Throughout this season I have had this nagging feeling that scrapping the reserve team was a bad idea. I understand the reasoning behind the decision: for the management team to focus on the first team squad, to arrange their own reserve friendlies on their own terms and to save a little bit of the budget which would have been spent on a reserve team set up and administration.
One further argument was that it was detrimental to the younger players to be playing week in, week out against other team’s senior reserves. This, however, was a one-time thing, a freak occurrence. Last season saw Bradford City play the most domestic games in a season of any team from any division in the history of English football. And by a good distance. In a season like that, the whole first team squad would be featuring regularly and not be risked in reserve team games. But 2012/13 will never be repeated by any team ever again.
Take a good look at this season, however, and I believe the blame for our mid-season slide from play off contenders to relegation battlers can partly be put on the lack of a reserve team. Players out of the match day squad need to stay match fit and be ready to step seamlessly into the first team when called upon. This season that has not happened at all.
The fringe players have all had the odd glimpse of promise, but have been inconsistent to say the least. I am talking about the likes of Carl McHugh, Matt Taylor, Jason Kennedy, Andy Gray, Mark Yeates, Luke Oliver, Ricky Ravenhill, Alan Connell and Rafa De Vita. Add to this the likes of Lewis Clarkson, Oli McBurnie, Niall Heaton and Jack Stockdill: who would benefit from regular games against opponents stronger than the youth team in order to prepare them physically and mentally for senior football.
Is it a coincidence that we have had a particularly barren run when struggling to find fit and ready replacements for the core first teamers? Key injuries to Andrew Davies, James Meredith and Kyel Reid, international call-ups for McHugh and Rory McArdle, as well as the sickness bugs and niggling injuries you have over the course of any season, should not have such a marked impact on results if you have players ready to step in. Furthermore, there is a level of complacency that creeps into players when they know they are undroppable. With all this in mind, should we really be that surprised by the way this season has panned out?
If we look forward to next season, I think the board and management team really need to reassess the merits of a reserve team, or as they are now officially called U21 Development Team.
The club is making huge strides off the field with the training facilities, fitness regime and in particular with the youth team. The scouting network also seems to be broadening, as can be seen with the signing of Clarkson, the potential signing of Craig McGillivray and the noted interest in numerous other non-league players. There is also the anomaly of RIASA using the name Bradford City U21 Development Team for a number of exhibition friendlies this season. Half-baked is a term I would use to describe this part of our club.
There is no need to worry about our reserve team getting hammered every week and damaging morale. Get it right, and there will be a good blend of senior fringe players, new signings, first year pros, the most promising apprentices, and the odd RIASA player featuring. Other clubs are switching their focus more towards U21 development too, so the leagues should be fairly matched. I also put it to the board that we have the perfect reserve team coach in the building already. Who better to take charge than Captain Marvel himself, Gary Jones? Heading into the twilight of his playing career, he is a player trusted by the management team and one who leads by example and displays all the characteristics needed for the role.
Let us keep up the club progression on and off the pitch, and let us not miss this trick again.