B, or not to B? That is the question.
I wonder, when the FA sat down to discuss the future of English football, if they actually talked to players who have experience of B team football abroad, where it apparently flourishes so. Because if they did, they’d discover that it is barely a glorified reserve team.
During my four years playing in Denmark, I spent a year at Odense BK. At the time, they were title contenders with an impressive history of bringing through talent such as Thomas Helveg, Thomas Sorensen and Christian Eriksen and their “B team”, Odense II, played in the 2. Division Vest. This was the third tier of the Danish League behind Superliga and 1. Division. The 2. Division was divided regionally into east (øst) and west (vest), and the B teams of Supaliga clubs were mixed in with the rest of the smaller third tier clubs. This level was as high as the B teams could go as rules stipulated there must be one division in between first and second teams.
The problems that this rule created were twofold. Firstly, no matter how well the B team fared, those players could never experience the satisfaction of a promotion even if they won the league comfortably. And no matter what anyone says, that is the ultimate reward for a group of players. Without that meaningful carrot dangling in front of them, motivation is lowered and victories become devalued. That’s how I felt anyway.
The B team was made up of a core of young 18-22 players, many of whom were still in full-time education or apprenticeships, plus first team squad players returning from injury, left out of the squad or in need of gaining match fitness. As one of these first team players who occasionally turned out for them, I never felt much of an affinity for a team I didn’t even train with.
Playing reserve team football is essentially a selfish pursuit. The main purpose of playing with the second string isn’t necessarily to help the team win three points. As an older head, your main motivation is to play well enough to get back into the manager’s plans. As a young player, it’s about catching the eye of the first team coaches and proving to them you are ready for the next step up. What football outside of the first team does is make you more focused on your own personal performance and success, rather than the team’s. Which I think is only natural.
My train of thought when playing for the first team was that the result was the only thing that mattered. My only concern when I played for the reserves was whether I played well or not and that I came through the game unscathed physically. Victory for the team wasn’t even secondary. The real truth of the matter was unless you were getting your fitness back after injury, the last place you wanted to be with the reserves.
It almost felt like a punishment. The only stipulation allowing first team players to be included in the B team was that they didn’t make an appearance, from the beginning or from the bench, in the previous game. So it felt like a double whammy.
The second problem arises when a team was relegated from the top flight. Imagine the scenario. You play in the B team and your side goes unbeaten to romp the league by a mile. But because your first team have had a dismal year and fail to beat the drop, that means the B team must be relegated too. And throw this into the scenario. What if your first team has a “Hyde” and are relegated ages before the season ends and you know that same fate awaits your B team? Won’t that effect the way you approach the remaining, fruitless games, which in turn will have consequences for others who are looking to go up or stay up in your division.
My brain feels squeezed just thinking of all the negatives B teams will bring to our game. I could go on for hours denigrating the FA’s proposal but I’m not sure I have the strength. I only want to give one perspective of the many out there. I still believe the loan system, for all it’s faults, is the best way of giving young players the experience. It pitches them into teams who all have the same motivations and working towards the same goals. Not mixing them with players gingerly dipping their toe back into football after a lengthy injury or someone who has the hump because they’ve been left out of the first team squad.
I’ve always stated that I developed more as a player in my two years with Darlington in League Two than I did in in any time in my career. Reserve/B team doesn’t prepare you for the pressure of first team football, at whatever level you play at. And it’s just as important to develop playing under those circumstances as it is to bring a player on technically as Greg Dyke seems so hell bent on doing. B team, reserves, development squad. It doesn’t matter how you phrase it. It’s all the same to me.
And if B teams really are the way forward, why are countries abandoning them and reverting back to reserve team leagues as they have done in Denmark in recent years? In my eyes, their system of developing players such as Eriksen was more to do with the brilliance of their “Talentchef”, Uffe Pedersen than having a B team and that’s where the FA’s concentration should lie. Too many experienced players are lost to the game as coaches because there just aren’t enough jobs for them to continue making a living and they fall out of the game.
It should also be noted that as a 16/17 year old, when Christian Eriksen joined in training with the first team, he would regularly embarrass players who were seasoned internationals and was coveted by clubs such as Barcelona and Chelsea before he eventually moved on to Ajax, yet he was never promoted from the youth set-up into the B team. More evidence to me of the lack of importance placed on a supposedly more competitive B team structure.