The English Premier League (EPL) has maintained its status as the golden standard for professional soccer in not only Europe but the world because of certain structures that they have put in place. These structures ensure that the league has a sense of consistency and continuity despite the everyday challenges that are associated with top-flight competitions. They also act as proving grounds for the next generations of EPL stars. With the constant changes that have been happening in the league’s development systems over the past couple of years, many fans wonder whether their favorite Premier League teams still have reserve teams.
Do Premier League teams have reserve teams? Yes, Premier League teams do technically have “reserve teams”. They however haven’t been officially referred to as such since the dissolution of the former Premier Reserve League in 2012. Currently, the under-21 sides of EPL clubs act as their de facto reserve teams. The said under-21 outfits presently compete in the Premier League 2, which is the most senior competition in the EPL’s Professional Development League – a system that is organized and managed by the EPL and the Football League with the aim of developing more homegrown players who would then transition to the Premier League.
The “Birth” of Premier League Reserve Teams
Premier League reserve teams can be traced back to the late 19th century following the events of the creation of the Football Association (FA) in 1863 and particularly the allowing of professionalism and the formation of the Football League in 1885 and 1888 respectively.
The above-mentioned events allowed clubs to build their squads well beyond the maximum number of players they could register (the current limit is 25 players). In order to ensure that there were players to replenish their ranks whenever the need arose, clubs started retaining reserve players on a permanent basis on what came to be commonly known as second teams.
Over time, clubs started looking for ways to ensure that their reserve players in their second teams got more playing opportunities to hone their skills. A good example is Stoke City (then known as Stoke) who enrolled their second team in the Combination – a defunct league in the late 1880s that involved clubs from Northern England and the Midlands.
The initial Combination however failed in its maiden season due to poor planning leading to the creation of the second iteration of the league, which ran from 1890 to 1911. Though the league ultimately failed, it provided the template for the creation of future leagues for teams that did not have the opportunity to play in the various divisions of the Football League.
The First Reserve League
Perhaps the most significant development for soccer reserve teams in England happened with the establishment of the Football Combination in 1915. Household names like Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United, and Watford were among the competition’s 12 founding members and began by fielding their first teams until 1919. The league predominantly catered to reserve teams from the south of England.
From that point forward, it was mainly the clubs’ reserve teams that participated in the competition as the obligations of first teams with the Football League continued to increase. The Football Combination expanded to 24 clubs by the 1930s and to 32 clubs after the resumption of play following the end of the Second World War in the mid to late 1940s.
A series of changes were instituted in the competition in the 1950s including creating two divisions (1 and 2) and introducing promotion and relegation and the Combination Cup to encourage participating teams to put their best feet forward. The changes initially had the desired effect but were later complicated when further tweaks to its rules made promotion and relegation dependent on the level of a club’s first team within the Football League in the late 1950s.
By the late 1960s, the Football Combination had significantly declined with the number of its participating clubs reducing to 26 and the competition merging into one division. Despite the numerous challenges it faced, the competition limped on for the next three decades and even managed to get sponsors along the way to fund its activities. All these developments nevertheless proved to be the calm before the storm.
The Rise and Fall of the Premier Reserve League
Recognizing the need for more playing opportunities for reserve team players, the Premier League introduced the FA Premier Reserve League in 1999. The Premier Reserve League effectively replaced the Football Combination and the Central League (a similar league for Football League reserve teams) in the south and north parts of England respectively.
Like the Football Combination, the Premier Reserve League was initially a hit but started declining after changes in regulations ahead of their 2006-07 season based a team’s promotion and relegation on the position of their first team in the English football system.
Put simply, a reserve team would be relegated from the Premier Reserve League if its first team was relegated from the Premier League at the end of the season and replaced by the reserve side of the team that was promoted from the Championship. The move did not sit well with a section of top-flight teams but proved to be a blessing in disguise for the Football Combination since relegated reserve teams often flocked to it in search of consistent competition.
The long-term viability of the Premier Reserve League was further challenged by the existence of the Premier Academy League which preceded it by two years as some clubs preferred the competition for their youth teams who sometimes formed part of their second/reserve teams.
A number of teams led by eight-time FA Cup winners Tottenham Hotspur also began boycotting the Premier Reserve League from their 2009-10 season due to its unfavorable organization creating a trend that threatened to undo the progress that had been made over the years.
The Introduction of the Elite Player Performance Plan
All in all, the Premier Reserve League failed to achieve its primary objective – grooming homegrown talent into future Premier League stars. The various competing systems also made it difficult to have any semblance of consistency across the board resulting in a significant decline in the number of homegrown players in Premier League teams.
To put things into context, 2009-10 EPL champions, Chelsea, had only five homegrown players out of a squad of 25 that season. In order to remedy the situation, the FA introduced a long-term effort known as the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) in 2012.
The EPPP established the Professional Development League (PDL) which effectively replaced the Premier Reserve League, the Football Combination, and the Premier Academy League. The PDL also established the under-21 Premier League and the Premier League 2 in 2012-13 and 2016-17 to ensure that players got the opportunities to gain the technical and physical skills that translated into as much first-team experience as possible. Seeking to avoid the mistakes of its predecessors, the PDL set minimum requirements that are to be met by the clubs that participate in the two divisions of Premier League 2. Promotion and relegation to and from the said divisions depend on the status allocated to a club’s under-21 side and not whether or not their senior team has been promoted or relegated from the Premier