English football must reconsider B teams - Leeds Academy Manager
Written by Simon Austin — January 10, 2023
ENGLISH football needs to seriously consider the B team model, because top young players are not getting enough exposure to senior football, Leeds United Academy Manager Adam Underwood has told TGG.
At the moment, players in the Professional Development Phase (17s to 21s) at Category One Academies have three main avenues for development:
- Playing in Premier League 2.
- Going out on loan.
- Playing for the first team in the Papa Johns Trophy.
However, Underwood, who has been Academy Manager at Leeds since 2014, has argued that each of these is flawed.
“We are arriving at a juncture where there are questions around the suitability of U21s football for the development of players for the Premier League,” he told TGG.
“I think there are lots of examples where the answer is yes, it is suitable. But there are also players that don’t have that conventional route through and need to go and play senior football.
“Going out on loan is the best option at present and the challenges that come with that are clear - you don’t control what happens when they go. Charlie Cresswell is out now at the moment at Millwall along with Jamie Shackleton - and we have a number of players out having good experiences.
“But there are also instances where loans are not successful and there is not a mechanism at the moment to allow that to change.”
Underwood was referring to the fact that Premier League clubs are not able to take players on 28-day loans, even though EFL clubs are. Top-flight clubs can only take players on loan from transfer window to transfer window, meaning they cannot bring them back early unless there is a prior arrangement in place.
The Papa Johns Trophy does offer exposure to senior football for young players, with the U21s from 16 Premier League Category One Academies pitted against EFL sides.
However, they are only guaranteed a minimum of three group matches, which can mean that their exposure to senior football in the competition is limited.
“Ultimately, that exposure to senior football is key,” Underwood said. “Our experiences in the Papa Johns have been fantastic. The feedback we’ve had from the coaches in the clubs we’ve played has generally been really positive - they’ve enjoyed the game and found Leeds competitive. We are positive on it at our end.
“The issue there is that you only get three of those games guaranteed and if you’re a Cat One there are only a select number of clubs that qualify for that.”
Last October, Bristol Rovers manager Joey Barton derided the standard of Premier League 2 after his side beat Crystal Palace U21s in the Papa Johns.
"They’re so far away, let’s be honest, so it kind of makes a mockery for me of what that Premier League 2 is,” he said.
Underwood said: “First-team managers in League One and Two have their priorities and, for us, as Category One Academies, we have ours, and feel that competition really supports that and would like to see that continue and somehow those opportunities grow for our players, because we feel that’s key for their development.”
The Leeds Academy Manager said English football now needed to “work towards ways to give players more exposure to senior football and not just have it in smaller doses across a season.”
He argued that the best means of doing this was the B team model, although implementation was fraught with difficulty in England because of the long-established football pyramid.
“One of the options to explore there is what our counterparts in Europe do, which is the B team model," he said. "Clearly there are some huge challenges in that ever becoming a reality and it may never become a reality, but it would be beneficial if steps were taken for us to have more exposure to senior football for our junior players.
“What I wouldn’t want to do is be overly specific. We are having those conversations at league level and I don’t want to undermine them. I think there are opportunities for us to explore that and to make it a priority for the direction of the games programme going forward, that has to be our goal.
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“It might be that those opportunities don’t come through league exposure but competitions that run alongside that. How do we make more of the papa johns, or how do we look at the other competitions and look at those to give youth development greater opportunity for exposure to senior football?
“Certainly, from a player development point of view, any opportunities that increase the number of games our players play in senior competitive football would be fantastic, alongside an evaluation of the loan regulations to make sure have a little more control of the experiences our players are having out on loan.
“So if it’s not going so well, we need another means to try and change that, maybe look at shorter-term loans or moving them to other clubs.”