Reserves fiasco may harm City's future

RICK WAGHORN If anyone needed any further clue as to just which way the upper reaches of this game are intent on going, it came with this week's announcement that the Canaries were about to be booted out of the Premier Reserve League.


If anyone needed any further clue as to just which way the upper reaches of this game are intent on going, it came with this week's announcement that the Canaries were about to be booted out of the Premier Reserve League.

Let's put one likely claim to rest from the start. This has absolutely nothing to do with the appearance of Easton College's finest in City colours as Norwich's chronic autumn injury list forced all hands on deck as far as Keith Webb's squad selections were concerned.

It has, however, absolutely everything to do with the Premier League's ever-growing disinterest in anything that might, just, encourage the next generation of both fans and players to 'connect' with the national game and, yet again, the Football Association's apparent ready willingness to turn the old Nelson blind-eye to anything that might be in danger of leading it into open conflict with the Premiership's ruling elite.

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Roll the clock back to the beginning of the week and the 4,500-odd Canary fans who turned up to watch Norwich City Reserves play Chelsea Reserves. OK, so genuine Chelsea 'stars' may have been notable more by their absence than anything else, but there is little doubt that the merest prospect of catching even a fleeting glimpse of a Shaun Wright-Phillips will have brought the paying public to City's door.

And here's one of the more crucial aspects to the whole debate - not just any old paying public but in every likelihood the next generation of Canary fans. The four, five and six-year-olds who are first introduced to the whole Carrow Road crowd 'thing' by their doting mums and dads, being unleashed on the real, Saturday afternoon deal on some very special occasion in the future.

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That's why decent community clubs like Norwich do the face-painting, have the clowns and the kiddies clubs - to make sure five, 10, 15 years down the line that there is still a queue for season tickets.

And not only is that good for one club in the middle of Norfolk, it is also good for the general well-being of football as a game, as a pastime, as a sport, as a national institution.

Are that many kids going to be inspired by the prospect of seeing Stevenage Reserves in action? Or the might of Barnet's second string?

So much for the supporters. Put yourself in the shoes of City's giant kid keeper Joe Lewis. Given that the teenage Academy prospect is already a regular England youth international, how is his future development going to benefit from seeing what the kids from Stevenage can throw at him?

Remember when Norwich first ploughed all that money into the Academy at Colney, in the bright new shiny world as promised by Howard Wilkinson's FA-backed 'Blueprint For Change', Lewis' playing development was mapped out for all to see - he would progress up through the Academy ranks, take a starring role in Norwich City's Academy Under-21 team as it played against other Academy Under-21 teams and then step into either a mixed-age Reserve side or Nigel Worthington's first team.

That had sense and structure to it; it was, one suspects, why Norwich - in a time of real financial hardship - threw so many of their resources into meeting the strict criteria laid down for wannabee members of football's Academy clubs. Just like Ipswich did, in all fairness.

When was the last time you saw anyone play an Academy Under-21 game? It doesn't happen. Never really got off the Wilkinson drawing board. Which left the Academy kids having to 'graduate' out of the Under-18 team into, er, well, whatever really. Oop north, that's the Football League-administered Central League and down south - until City won promotion to the Premiership - that was the Football League Combination.

Such north-south divides make perfect sense for anyone not perched either way out west in Plymouth's case; way out east in Norwich's. Because neither player nor fan alike wants to be hauling themselves from one side of the country to the other in pursuit of a reserve team game.

In the meantime, along comes the Premier League. They establish a Premier League Reserve set-up for the north and south and off it goes - granting member clubs the 20/22 games a season they're looking for and all with a limit on the amount of miles to be travelled.

And then the Premier League cock it up. Because they allow some of their pals to stay in the 'club' despite having been relegated. And as the seasons pass and the likes of Leicester City, Coventry City and Ipswich Town are allowed to keep their ticket to the Premier Reserve League show, so the league expands to 14 teams, clubs are expected to play 26, 28 games a season and when clubs like Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham have better things to worry about than finding 16 kids/ players a week to send out to the further corners of the Football League globe, so the whole thing finally shatters.

The Premier League have a quiet word between themselves and it's sorted. We'll stick to the original formula of limiting the best quality Reserve team football to the 20 clubs in the top flight in any one season and what happens to the rest of you is not our problem - shouldn't have got relegated should you?

Given the fact that the Premiership's bigger voices buy all their players 'off the shelf' anyway - and, in Arsenal's case, rarely going home-grown anyway - their interest in the broader, bigger picture, of what is actually of benefit to the national game, gets closer and closer to nil. They don't give the proverbial monkeys as to who Keith Webb's boys play on a Monday night.

But someone, someone with the bigger picture in mind, really ought to care where the shambles that is professional reserve team football in this country is all leading us - both in terms of the next generation of football supporters and the next generation of England football stars.

And that body is the Football Association. They, after all, are allegedly in charge of the well-being of the national game; they are its' guardians and its protectors. That, in theory, is why your fine for getting booked one Sunday morning at Sloughbottom Park ought to be going to a good cause - looking after the game that we all love.

Equally, it was the Football Association that set the whole Academy thing in motion; promised this bright new structure that would take Joe Lewis through to 21 years of age. Mmm, where's that gone?

I also thought they were supposed to be building some brand new national Academy deep in the hills of Derbyshire; a new centre of excellence that was Lilleshall with knobs on. England's answer to the Clairefontaine set-up in France that nurtured the kind of talents necessary to win a World Cup.

Originally due to cost £80 million, as the sums involved in new Wembley disappeared off towards the £800 million mark, the project has gradually slipped further and further out of view. Some £15 million has apparently been spent on 14 state-of-the-art pitches, but - just like Wilkinson's whole Academy vision -the simple willingness to fund the residential buildings, the infrastructure and the staff that would have taken the centre near Burton on to the next level has all but gone.

That's where Master Lewis would have completed his footballing education; that would have been the finishing school for the crème de la crème of young English football talent.

It's not too often that I find myself nodding in agreement with Gordon Taylor, chairman of the Professional Footballers' Association. But on the fate of the National Football Centre at Burton, he got it spot on.

“The FA's priority seems to be having a good national stadium at Wembley rather than a good team to play in it,” said Taylor last year.

And that's the biggest question of all facing the FA, in just whose interests are they serving the national game?

The likes of David Dein and Arsenal's multi-national teenagers? Or, potentially, one of Norfolk's finest in Joe Lewis? Somewhere, deep in the heart of the whole reserve league fiasco, you have your answer.

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