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Guest Post – Reserves reservations refuted

By Tim Adams

So the topic of if Reserves football is beneficial has been brought up again – both in Women’s NRFL/Conference and Men’s NRFL.  I have a pretty clear view on why I think it’s the best thing since sliced bread (sorry that’s overstating it a bit).

Firstly let me set the scene for those not familiar with the NRFL/Women’s Conference league structure.

Reserves teams are now (after several years of trying) fully compulsory for the following divisions:

  • NRFL Premier (Men’s)
  • NRFL Premier (Women’s)
  • NRFL Div 1
  • NRFL Div 2
  • AFF/NFF Conference (Men’s)
  • AFF/NFF Conference (Women’s)

Leagues are drawn and scheduled (with the odd exception) so that the Reserves play at the same venue and play the same team that the First Team will be playing – kickoff times used to be a sensible standard of 12:30pm and 2:45pm so there was little gap between the fixtures – this has ballooned out to 12:30pm and 3pm in recent seasons (that’s a story for another day).

Recent regulation changes (start of last season) meant that the NRFL Reserves league now allows 5 subs instead of 3, meaning all 5 available slots on the bench can be used (I’m not 100% sure what the regulation is in Women’s and Men’s Conference).

Ok so that’s how it works currently – so what are the problems?

  • It looks bad when a club like Ngaruawahia (men) or Papatoetoe (women) has to pull out of the league because they can’t field two teams.
  • It costs more for out of Auckland teams than having their reserves play locally.
  • Does it actually offer development or is it lip service
  • Are the games competitive since there is no promotion/relegation

OK so let’s work through those issues (and some others) first before we start waxing lyrical about the benefits of the Reserves.

The league deserves the diversity of having clubs like Ngaruawahia and Papatoetoe in their respective leagues, however the ability to field two teams or in this case the ability not to be able field two teams is an indication something has gone wrong somewhere else – a policy of recruiting players instead of developing, an unfortunate coaching selection, or just a diminishing player/volunteer base, or maybe a travel cost (will look at that next).

But what’s your long term plan look like to stay in the NRFL if you can’t field two teams?

Ok cost – and this is a big one, yes it’s going to cost more to have your reserves team go to Auckland every second week, instead of heading over to Huntly or Te Awamutu.  However the quality of the NRFL Reserves leagues is in my mind undoubtedly better and more importantly closer to that of the NRFL league itself so if clubs are serious about having depth and a succession plan then this league is their best avenue.  Also don’t forget it still costs to go to places like Huntly, albeit not as much but there is still cost.  Lastly on the cost issue having two teams playing at the same venue one after each other actually reduces some cost as well as you can double up on coaches/balls etc.

The third point is a tough one – I have no doubt in my mind that some clubs get really good development out of their Reserves, and some other clubs just play a group of guys in that league that are not really part of their development pathway (generally Auckland based clubs).  So what’s the answer here?  Mandate a certain amount of youth players?  Again I think this would be most damaging to smaller clubs, my club for example wouldn’t have much of an issue but it could make it hard for a club like Mt Albert Ponsonby (for example) to put a team in because their reserves are a little older, while they have a young First Team so it balances out.

The last point is for me an easy one – I have watched a lot of reserves football over the last 10 odd seasons and it’s almost always competitive, players are trying to win a league or win a spot in their first team, young players are trying to convince their coaches they up to speed and some older heads leading their teams like it’s their World Cup final.  Add to that mix the NRFL Knockout Cups which give a team like Ellerslie’s the chance to test themselves against a Premier League Reserves team and the competition is fierce.  Yes there is no promotion/relegation but there isn’t any of that in Stirling Sports Premiership or in the A-League and all of those games (even the mid-table ones late in the season) are contested fiercely.

So what are the benefits of mirrored reserves?

It’s a really clear pathway – a young reserves player can see the path in front of him to first team football, he can see the 23 year old who played next to him in midfield for the first 60 minutes of the game go sit on the bench for the first team and get on in the second half, he can see it, he can taste it and it’s all in his hands to impress enough to win himself that spot – so it drives competiveness within players, at any given time you are one injury away from being tapped on the shoulder and asked to sit on the bench – do that enough and you find yourself in the team.  It’s just not the same if you’re playing against North Shore in a reserves game while your first team is at Oratia.

For everyone involved both home and away teams it’s a much easier task to manage two games at the same venue, I have already mentioned this above, but it’s such a big thing that most people who are not involved in running football don’t see.  You can get away with 1 physio, 1 team manager, 1 coach (if you are really running a tight ship), 1 set of balls, 1 set of bibs etc etc etc.

My last point is going to be very Ellerslie orientated so may not stack up for other clubs but in its current shape we have used the reserves to develop First Team players – we don’t rely on recruiting, so much so that of all the players who have played for our First Team this year (31) we have had 23 players come through our reserves system.

Yes some won’t be young players (some are) but nevertheless we are developing them and pushing them to be better and conversely whoever ends up playing in Reserves on any given weekend knows they are expected to perform and learn in that environment before they can progress!

Don’t take my word for it though – why don’t we get some opinions of some reserves players from clubs around the league and ask them what they think of the competition?

[Tim Adams is chairman of Ellerslie AFC and a regular commenter both here and on the forums, where he often goes by the handle of ‘Chopah’.]

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Enzo Giordani

A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.

5 replies

  1. I am in the TKU SWR and really enjoy the step up in the intensity and demands of the game at this level – I was in the 15th G Prems last year..When we train we have a game with the Prem women and that is so much fun, nothing like getting past Alosi or Caitlyn Pritchard to make you realise that you actually do know what you are doing.

    1. awesome to hear – it would be great to get more feedback (good or bad) from current reserves players about how they feel about the league – and get them to AFF so they can make an informed call when assessing it – otherwise administrators like me with blinkered opinions will have all the say!

  2. Thanks Tim, a great read. Appreciate the time and effort you put into sharing your perspective. Being down in Wellington and not involved it has certainly helped me understand parts of the debate I didn’t have a good feel for before.

  3. Some nice points Tim. My comments here are mainly on how reserve teams work, rather than the merits of Northern league structure. I’ve been mulling over this for a while. I was basically a reserve player for most of my football playing career (given my playing limitations) so feel well qualified to comment on reserve football. In my day the reserves existed to provide replacements that could step up to the first team but played in a competitive league. They were a mix of older players and young kids. Some of the older players were in their 30s and gave great development and guidance to the younger guys : the older guys were also the first choice replacement players for the first team generally with the younger guys coming in more sporadically.

    Nowadays reserve teams seem to be mainly youth based which does give a good pathway but not always as effective as back-up for the first teams, especially if two or three youngsters are flung into the fray at once. Experience and strength do count for a lot. I’m not arguing that youth shouldn’t been given opportunities, but more about balance and thinking holistically about a club.

    These youth players that numerous, energetic and valuable. What happens to them once they hit, say 23 or 24 years old, and don’t quite make the cut as first team players?

    Ag present I see that many players in the 25 to 35 y/o group tending to drift away from clubs to play at a lower levels, play social on Sundays or not play. My club seem to be a case in point here. I can’t think of too many players in this age bracket (apart from from one or two first teamers). These fellas are good to have in a club: they have a bit more cash to spend at the bar, they can help with working bees, they have youngsters they can bring to the club and sometimes partners that also get involved. Serious first teamers tend to play and that’s it. Youngsters don’t drink and are never at working bees.

    I see a small of older guys (and ladies) in clubs like mine shouldering the burdens of running the show. I’m just don’t see a lot of guys coming in to replace them.

    Or is it just me?

    So back to your discussion Tim. I’m not sure about the best option for NRFL reserves apart from to say that us Waikato team bear a far bigger financial burden for travel than the Auckland teams. Any chance of a travel grant or two NZFA?

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