Over the years a reserve side provided a good grounding for young players hoping to break into the first team and they knew that if they progressed and an opportunity came because of an injury to a first team regular, they would get their chance to show what they could do in the team. At other times, if a regular first team player was out due to injury, he would have expected to play a number of reserve games to prove his match fitness before getting a recall to the senior team. Equally if a senior player lost form or fell out of favour with the manager, he could expect to be banished to the reserves to try and regain form or until he had made amends for his wrongs.
However, nowadays, none of those scenarios seem to come into play.
Everyone is aware of the format for the television programme, ‘I’m a Celebrity – Get me out of here’, where some lesser known celebrities endure tasks they would usually find beneath them. Being a reserve at Tottenham Hotspur must feel like being involved in that contrived television situation, not knowing if there will be any chance for promotion to the League side.
Take recent situations at the club and consider them from a reserve player’s point of view.
Injury has badly affected the defence. Last week in Sevilla during the second half, it was reported that both full-backs, Paul Stalteri and Young-Pyo Lee. As the only defender among the substitutes, Phil Ifil was told to warm up. Chris Hughton was seen giving him instructions as he prepared to come into the game. Time passed and Malbranque and Ghaly were put as the two full-backs soldiered on, apparently having recovered from their difficulties – Ifil never appeared.
Before the next game, it was reported that Lee would be out for the rest of the season with injury – obviously playing on for the good of the team didn’t do him any favours. With Rocha available, Chimbonda moved to left back with Stalteri who’s recovered from his problem fit to play and it was a matter of another afternoon sitting on the bench for Phil Ifil.
The real problems occurred for the UEFA Cup quarter-final game against Sevilla. Stalteri had finally succumbed with a hip injury and Rocha was cup-tied again but with Ledley King returning, Chimbonda was available at left back. That left one position to be filled – all the newspaper reports suggested young full back, Ifil, would be in the starting line-up but other informed opinion suggested that the manager was going to play Teemu Tainio out of position to fill the vacant right back spot. When the line-up was announced before kick-off, Tainio was at right back and Ifil one of the substitutes.
Phil Ifil (Pic:above) is twenty years of age and made his debut two seasons ago under Jacques Santini in the opening two games of the season. He made a favourable impression while the club waited for the signing of Pamarot to be completed. Since then he has made two further appearances in the League Cup, his last appearance being against Port Vale in November. From the outside it looks clear that the manager has little confidence in the player – he has been out on loan to gain experience, has played regularly for the reserves this season, but even when there’s a crisis, the manager won’t play him. Perhaps Sunday’s game against Wigan will see him get the opportunity he has been waiting for although Rocha is available again for the left side of the defence.
It looks like the time is coming when Phil Ifil is going to have to follow that well trodden route of Tottenham reserves to lower League clubs. Many have done it before – Dean Marney to Hull City, Rohan Ricketts to Wolverhampton Wanderers, Stephen Kelly to Birmingham and Johnnie Jackson to Colchester United. The ‘Life after the Lane’ section of the club handbook details all those who have gone before.
Similar thoughts must be entering 22 year-old Lee Barnard’s mind. As fifth striker his only appearances have been as substitute in three of the final four games of last season when Mido was injured. He put himself about a bit, which always endears a young player to the supporters. He has been the reserves leading goal scorer for the past two years, finishing last season with 19 goals. However, injury has prevented him from building on that this year. Clive Allen is reported to have worked with him to develop his scoring ability and in his first game back for the reserves last Monday against Aston Villa he scored the team’s second goal. He was described on the Villa web-site report as being 'Quick, full of energy and intent, he’s as good a forward as we’ve faced this season.'
However, on Thursday evening as he sat on the bench with Spurs needing four goals to progress to the next round, he saw, defender, Pascal Chimbonda being moved forward into attack as a fourth striker as the team sought a late flurry of goals. Chimbonda was playing in his fourth position in as many games as Spurs’ injuries and short-comings became more evident. Barnard’s self-confidence must have taken a blow as obviously the manager has little faith in his ability to deliver in such crucial circumstances.
Others have suffered a similar fate – Mark Yeates made his debut in 2004 in David Pleat’s last period in charge. Since then he has been restricted to a few appearances as a substitute and now for the second successive season he has gone out on loan, currently playing for Leicester. Wayne Routledge, Reto Ziegler have gone out on loan while the other reserve players are mostly youngsters. There seems little chance for them as most eventualities seemed to be covered through the squad system. Adel Taarabt, the young French player, has recently been projected into the squad, having only played a handful of reserve games.
Under such circumstances is there a need for a reserve team? It seems to serve little purpose and the number of young players/reserves who have made the transition to the Premiership in the past decade is very limited – Ledley King may well be the last one to successfully take that step. Only occasionally does a squad player make an appearance for the reserves – Danny Murphy being an example when he started the game to prove his fitness ahead of The UEFA clash with Sevilla. However, Ledley King didn’t play any games before returning to first team action in the same game, having been out injured since late December.
The players who move on from Tottenham without first team experience or limited opportunities usually find their level further down the League and can make a worthwhile career for themselves. Evidence of this was seen when Mark Gower (Pic: below) and Kevin Maher played against Spurs in both Cup competitions for Southend United earlier this year. Others who have cut out a League career after leaving White Hart Lane include goalkeeper Alan Marriott with over 300 games at Lincoln City, Ian Hendon, now at Barnet after serving various clubs over the years and midfielder Kevin Watson at Colchester United who captained Spurs’ successful reserve team. They have been provided with a grounding that has been of great benefit to them in their careers and although they were unable to make the breakthrough at Tottenham, they have found success elsewhere.
Looking at the reserve set-up at Tottenham it seems in recent years to have provided very little in the way of development of players who are going to appear in Spurs’ Premiership team. Under such circumstances if it is to be maintained, the structure of the youth academy and reserves need to be examined to ensure it can be more beneficial to Tottenham Hotspur.