Left in reserve

Seventeen years ago almost to the very day, I sat in the away dressing room at Broadwood Stadium in Scotland, home of Clyde FC, stripped and ready to play for Queens Park reserves. I was a 17-year old and, though tall, still a mere slip of a boy. If I stood side on next to a fag paper you would have missed me, I was that thin. Outside, it was a typical Scottish night with the rain pounding down and the wind swirling around. I sat intently listening to the team talk from our reserve team manager, Davie Hunter, five minutes before kickoff.

16 year old at Queens Park and not long after my reserve debut.

“Right, boys I am looking for the five C’s tonight. First, commitment. We need to be committed in everything we do. Second, confidence. Let’s be confident. Third, composure.” You get the idea. I sat there listening intently soaking in every word of wisdom my coach had to say. Eventually it came to the fifth C and apparently the most important. “The last C lads is… Kicking C@#ts!!!!”

Fast forward fifty minutes and I am back in the changing room sitting in the same seat as before now dripping wet and feeling slightly sorry for myself. We are 5-0 down. The prematch pep talk has obviously not had the desired effect. The first half has been a complete disaster. I can’t recall every goal, but I do know I was culpable for some of them if not the majority.

The instruction was “kicking c@#&s,” but I couldn’t get close enough to anyone to even lay a glove. I do recall for one goal getting bundled into the back of my own net along with the ball by a huge bustling French striker who’s name I will never forget, Fredric Boniface. His name is not notable to me or anyone for that matter for the stellar career he had enjoyed or went onto enjoy but the lesson he gave me that night is something ingrained in my mind forever. He was a 29-year old journeyman striker from the lower leagues in France, but for a young “wet behind the ears” center back making his way in the game, he proved a serious challenge. When I went tight, he rolled me. When I challenged in the air, he bumped me. Everything I tried he had an answer for. The term often used in football is he “old-manned” me or as my Dad would say, “You got a roasting!”

Frederic Boniface. Not a household name but he gave me a torrid time.

The game finished 5-0 and I distinctly remember getting into my Dad’s car chilled to the bone and feeling utterly dejected. I had dreams of playing at a far higher level than the Scottish Reserve League West, but I couldn’t even deal with a striker that had not played for a club of any note. It was a long journey home and an almighty reality check.

The following morning, I received a conditional offer from Stirling University for a Sport Science degree. Now more than ever, with my confidence at a low ebb, I thought this could be the path that I need to follow if I wished to be involved in the game I loved. I can now look back having enjoyed seventeen seasons as a professional and realise that in reality, nights like the one just described were the making of me as a football player. I was still at High School, yet I was pitted against senior professional footballers who had and were making a living out of the game. Instead of playing in a sterile environment surrounded by my peers, I was exposed to the brutal reality of professional football, playing against hardened pros in dreadful conditions on less-than-perfect pitches. I had to learn quickly or fall by the wayside.

Contrast and compare all of this to players of a similar age in academies playing U18 or U21 matches at any of the training grounds dotted round the country on a Friday afternoon. Which player do you think will stand the better chance of making a career out of the game?

The one who is being pushed to their maximum in an environment completely new to him, consisting of experienced players playing for their livelihoods or the guys playing against the same guys they have known all their life, where if the brutal truth be told, the pecking order is already determined and everyone is happy to go with the flow?

Sink or swim? That is the question. Nothing is handed to you once you reach the professional ranks and you are mixing with seasoned coaches and professionals. Thankfully I had the desire, belief or perhaps even ignorance, call it what you will to come back each week renewed and rejuvenated, ready to prove that I was good enough to take another step up the ladder.

I have been watching a number of interesting interviews recently where ex-players or senior players refer to the fantastic grounding they received from playing in a competitive reserve team environment. Players like Frank McAvennie, Kris Boyd, James McFadden, Lee McCulloch to name a few all suggested that this was a really important part of their development.

When I first signed for Queens Park at 15, my first aim was to get in the reserve team at 16. This was the next step towards achieving the real goal of playing for the first team. You didn’t get picked to play for the reserves at 16, 17, or 18 to make up the numbers, you got picked because you deserved the chance and the coaches wanted to see what you were made of to groom you for the next step. It was an achievement. At that moment in time, it was a huge achievement, one that gave you the hope you were getting somewhere. I was actually so excited to be picked for the reserves. It was a great thrill and sense of achievement.

Michy Batshuayi celebrates with his youthful teammates.

There has been a backlash to Chelsea and other Premier League teams fielding some experienced players in the last round of the Checkatrade Trophy and it leaves me baffled. First of all, I am surprised anyone has bothered to comment on this when only 500 hundred people even turn up to watch some of these ties.

Over the years, the League Cup, the LDV/Johnstone Paints /call it what you want clubs have came under fire for fielding weakened teams. Well lo and behold Chelsea and Leicester give some of their first team players an outing and they are the ones in the firing line. Vicki Holmes of The Telegraph wrote an article decrying the fact that Chelsea fielded Batshuayi, their £33 million striker.

The premise of the article was that by starting such an experienced player, they are depriving a young player of an opportunity. First, she forgot to mention the three 17-year olds that Chelsea did start, and, secondly, the most important fact that MK Dons manager Robbie Neilson admitted to fielding some younger members of his squad for the match. If every team fielded all their young players, all we would end up with is a youth tournament, players playing against the same players they have played against all their life. Instead, some young MK Dons players got the opportunity to play against an international and top Premier league player.

The young Chelsea players that were involved also got to play alongside someone from the top team in a real match. This opportunity is invaluable. They get to see how a Premier League player prepares for a match up close and then run out beside this Championship winner and try to win his respect through the quality of their play. Playing with such a high caliber play just might encourage them them raise their game to a new level whether it be a slipped through ball or a whipped cross for a run that their U23 striker wouldn’t have made. 

John Hughes gave me a glimpse of what it looked like to be a commanding center back.

I remember playing against a hulking John Hughes (ex-Celtic and Hibs) at the latter stages of his career for Ayr United’s reserves. At a corner, a young defender had the audacity to tell Yogi to pick up his man. The big man turned round and in no uncertain terms replied, “That Ball is a magnet to my head son.” The ball was duly delivered and, rising above everybody, Hughes headed the ball clear while letting out a big roar. For a young center back like myself, this was an invaluable learning experience getting to see up close how an experienced and commanding center half should operate. I always liked John Hughes from that moment on.

There are certain aspects of the game that cannot be coached or replicated on the training ground. Players need to get out there on the field and go through all the good and bad experiences that the professional game brings. How they come through these experiences will generally determine what type of career they have. The expression “shape up or ship out comes” to mind.

At a time where academies are increasingly coming under scrutiny for not producing players equipped to handle the rigors of the professional game due to the sense of entitlement that is created over the years of being mollycoddled in the academy culture, it doesn’t make sense that people are arguing for young players to be handed the opportunity of a first team game just because they are young. What has happened to actually earning your spot in the first team or reserves?

Young players had to push themselves to the limit to improve on the off chance they might one day be handed that elusive debut with the first team. The sense of achievement when that call comes is second to none. All that hard work and sacrifice is worth it and makes you realise that if you continue in that vein, more first team appearances can follow. Instead, people are promoting a culture where these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities should just be handed out like sweeties. “I have been part of the academy since nine, so I am deserving of a chance.” No, I am sorry. In the real world, it doesn’t work that way.

Back in a bygone era, reserve teams were filled with senior professionals either coming back from injury or maintaining fitness and supplemented by the next crop of potential stars. Now, playing reserve football is sneered at. There as so many professionals that don’t play with the first team and still don’t turn out with the reserves as it is seen to be beneath them. They have too big an ego to play with the stiffs. This attitude can seep down to the young players.

The game in this country would benefit from a strong reserve league structure where more senior players turned out. Some people would be amazed at the lack of game time some senior professionals actually have. The Premier League and Championship teams carry such big squads that many will hardly ever step foot on a field. While many players wouldn’t admit it, a competitive reserve league game would hand them more chance of getting back in the first team than festering in the stands week after week, and this in return would benefit the young players coming through for all of the reasons I have already mentioned.

I found it refreshing to see Leicester and Chelsea play some of their multi-million pound fringe players in a game like the one above. Having played in this tournament before and prior to the addition of the Premier League teams, I think the appearance of some top stars will help the struggling competition. It might help draw bigger crowds because one thing is certain — the fans have not been turning up in droves for the early rounds over the past few years. The games I featured in were no more than glorified reserve games.

At present, all we have is a U23 League with youngsters playing against youngsters in a format that is simply delaying the inevitable for many of these young pros. They are filling spaces until it is time for them to get released. When they reach the age of 22 or 23 and they have to drop down the leagues and start playing professional football at that level after years in a Premiership Academy environment, it can be the equivalent to getting hit like a train. Welcome to the real world son, as they would say and, by the way, are you good enough to play for us??

I know the feeling, but thankfully I was young enough to have the chance and determined enough to recover. It is important these young players are given the same opportunity.

4 thoughts on “Left in reserve”

  1. Read this and you get an understanding of how invaluable playing with senior pros is to a young player. Great piece neill

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