Tony Gillan: Forget Checkatrade Trophy - what was wrong with the old Reserves league?

When time stood still.

Wednesday, 11th October 2017, 7:00 pm
Updated Tuesday, 12th December 2017, 6:59 am
Sunderland in action during their Checkatrade Trophy tie against Doncaster.

I can still remember where I was when someone told me that Sunderland had been eliminated from this season’s Checkatrade Trophy.

Admittedly, that’s because it was only 20 minutes ago. I had otherwise completely forgotten about it.

What now for the players involved? Well, they still have a dead rubber at Grimsby on 8 November; while over-age players involved in the defeat at Doncaster last week, such as Jack Rodwell, can have a well-earned break.

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The competition, previously called the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy among other names, was contested until last season by all League One and Two clubs.

It remains popular among those clubs as they are unlikely to win anything else. The 2016-17 Wembley final between Coventry and Oxford was watched by 74,434.

However, the decision to allow academy teams from the top two divisions could potentially ruin things.

If the final was contested by, say, the under-21s of Swansea and Tottenham; how many would be there to see it? Neither set of supporters would care much.

As for Sunderland after their exit; well the under-23s, not under-21s as in the Checkatrade, played Hertha Berlin last night in the Premier League International Cup.

They won 3-1 in a friendly at Ryhope CW last Wednesday. The game commemorated Ryhope’s 125th anniversary. Congratulations to them.

I can see the value of the Ryhope game; although the 11-0 trouncing of Annfield Plain last month can’t have benefitted anyone.

Their main competition is the under-23s league (changed as of last season from under-21s) against the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and both Manchester clubs.

This for players born after 1 January 1994.

Okay up to a point. But why under-23? I can see why there is an under-18 league, but under-23 seems rather old.

Some players in this league will be 24 by the end of this season – possibly half way through their career.

When I was 24, I was doing 22-hour shifts down the pit with all the other liars.

According to the Premier League, the under-23 division is there to provide “a greater focus on technicality, physicality and intensity to bring players as close to first-team experience as possible.”

In which case, what was wrong with the old reserves leagues?

The answer to questions like that is usually “the game has moved on;” a glib and meaningless response that is never elaborated upon. Rather like “that would be an ecumenical matter.”

The reserve league of yore was such that any footballer in England might be on the pitch. Opponents could be established top-class players returning from injury, emerging young superstars, or journeyman assassins.

It was all good, tough experience with an abundance of “technicality, physicality and intensity” and what all players in any first team must get used to.

The current under-23 set-up seems more of a “comfort zone” by comparison.

It was good for supporters too. One reserve game at the Stadium of Light against Liverpool in 1999 drew 33,512 people.

True, it was free admission. But entry was never more than the price of a pint anyway.

The main attraction was seeing the likes of Steve McManaman, a few months before his departure to Real Madrid.

Such stellar names were routine at reserve matches and youngsters, not just those at Sunderland, were given excellent experience.

What was there to dislike?