Most of the Arsenal Under-23 team will have been unfazed by the thought of playing Liverpool at Meadow Park in Borehamwood in front of a crowd of 358. But a few of them may have been starstruck when they looked around and saw Héctor Bellerín in their defence. Bellerín’s appearance was unusual for two reasons. Star players returning from injury usually play for less than an hour and only do so in reserve games at the club’s own stadium. Bellerín played the full 90 minutes at a local non-league ground, setting up Arsenal’s second equaliser in a 2-2 draw.
Lining up alongside an established international should help the young Arsenal players develop. However, star names often prove as much aggro as they are worth for Under-23s managers. One told me: “We get different first-team players every game and it’s always for the benefit of the first team – not us. I never know who I’m getting until the day before a game, or even later. Put it this way: I never write out my team until I get to the ground! If we’re playing away, unless it’s close or we’re playing at a decent stadium, I assume I won’t get any first-team players. But if we’re at home and there’s no first-team game for a while, I might get half a dozen.”
Unai Emery has made good use of the reserves this season, with Bellerín, Rob Holding and Konstantinos Mavropanos all playing for the Under-23s on their returns from injury. Managing the ego of a Premier League star in a non-league dressing room full of teenagers can be a tough task for reserve-team managers. Senior players who are returning from long-term injuries simply want to make it through the games unscathed – while meeting various physical outputs, all overseen by the medical staff – but players who have been frozen out of the first team present entirely different challenges.
One challenge arises from the huge disparity in the values given to each player, which rarely correspond to the effort they put in on the pitch. The first-team star is being paid a lot more than the youngsters sitting either side of him in a dressing room, which is often at a non-league ground. It is the star who is out of his comfort zone.
Occasionally, in the Premier League 2 and EFL Trophy, multimillionaires line up alongside players who are fighting to make a career in the game. Sometimes they are the same age. Callum Hudson-Odoi, whose new contract is reportedly worth £180,000 a week, recently played in a Chelsea Under-23s game alongside fellow 18-year-olds who are paid one-thousandth of what he earns. Michy Batshuayi, who scored for Belgium at the World Cup last year, has also played several games for the club’s second team this year.
The extremes continue down the food chain. In the Professional Development League – the second tier of academy football, which includes Watford, Burnley, Crystal Palace and Sheffield United – some players earn 100 times more than their young teammates. Most first-year professionals at Category 2 clubs are paid around £300 a week; Premier League teammates could be on more than £30,000 a week.
Nathaniel Chalobah, who was paid a reported £36,000 a week as a teenager at Chelsea, made his full England debut this time last year in a 3-2 win over Spain; more recently he has been playing for Watford’s Under-23s – and was even sent off in a 1-0 home defeat to Millwall. Similarly, James Tomkins, who represented Team GB at the London Olympics, played for the Crystal Palace Under-23s last month on his way back from injury.
Playing alongside an international star may be a thrill, but aspiring pros sometimes learn more from what they don’t do than what they do. “There are some first-teamers you’d rather do without,” said one Under-23s boss. “One or two will always put a shift in, and you want those, but most of them don’t want to be there – and play like it. They don’t exactly set a good example to the kids.”
Sam Nombe spent the best part of last season on loan at Oxford City and Maidenhead United. This season he has gone to Anfield and shone against a World Cup finalist and a Champions League-winner. Nombe, who turns 21 later this month, stretched Liverpool’s rusty centre-back partners Dejan Lovren and Joe Gomez during the recent EFL Cup tie. Big, strong and relentless, he played with the hunger of someone who recognises an opportunity when he sees one.
Next man up
Aaron Connolly made headlines over the weekend after he scored twice in Brighton’s 3-0 win over Tottenham. He is not the only youngster at the club who is making the step up to first-team football look easy. Steven Alzate went into Graham Potter’s starting line-up at Newcastle in mid-September and has stayed there. The 21-year-old playmaker, who was brought up in north London by Colombian parents, came through at the Leyton Orient academy. Two years ago, he was in the Orient side that was relegated from League Two. Now he is excelling in the Premier League.
Little more than a year ago, Potter was managing Östersund, who he took from Sweden’s fourth tier to the knockout stages of the Europa League. Things have fallen apart somewhat since. Östersund are not only fighting a relegation battle – with one win in their last 21 games – but they are fighting to exist. The club’s high-profile owner Daniel Kindberg is in court over fraud charges.
It is a difficult time for Östersund’s considerable English contingent, including manager Ian Burchnall, former Chelsea youngster Charlie Colkett, well travelled winger Blair Turgott, goalkeeper Andrew Mills, and Jamie Hopcutt, who has been with Östersund for seven years.
Curtis Edwards left Östersund for Djurgardens this summer and his new club is closing in on the Swedish title. “I’m living the dream – so far,” he told me. Edwards could be in the Champions League next season, Östersund in oblivion.
This week in 2014 …
Manchester United sent Preston North End to Stevenage to play Tottenham in an Under-21s game. Well, looking at the teamsheet, it feels that way now. The United side that beat Spurs 2-1 at Broadhall Way included six future Preston players, most of whom played together at Deepdale. It did not work out at Preston for goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard (who is now playing for Helsingborgs in Sweden), on-loan striker Will Keane (now at Ipswich), or defender Liam Grimshaw (now at Motherwell), while full-back Marnick Vermijl has returned home to Belgium.
But two of that United side are now flourishing at Preston: Josh Harrop was the club’s best forward against Manchester City in the League Cup last Tuesday and Ben Pearson – one of the best holding midfielders in the Championship – would surely be a Premier League player were it not for his reckless disciplinary record.