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The debate continues over teenagers making it into West Ham United's first team

David Gold certainly opened a hornet’s nest with his comments about teenagers playing in the Premier League. 

West Ham United v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

It has been almost a month now since West Ham's co-chairman caused a bit of a furore among the fans when he said that he can't see too many teenagers playing for the Hammers first team in the foreseeable future.

Referring in particular to Josh Cullen and Reece Oxford, David Gold pointed out that talent alone doesn't always guarantee a regular appearance and that sometimes a bit of experience is what is required.

West Ham’s co-chairman did emphasise that players like Josh and Reece won’t be teenagers forever and that he would love to see more youngsters coming through to the first team.

As the situation stands at the moment, though, he doesn't feel that many of the younger players are able to hold down a first team place.

In the season that's recently finished, West Ham’s under-23 side won promotion to the top division of Premier League 2; which is the league for club reserve sides and where the developing youngsters will play in order to gain experience and hopefully progress to the first team.

However, the punch-line comes with the age restrictions that apply in reserve / academy football today and it’s a topic of the modern game that’s commonly discussed. Many club managers and coaches feel that by the time these lads reach their early twenties then they should already be playing first-team football if they’re going to make it as professionals.

West Ham United v SV Werder Bremen - Betway Cup Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images

There is a school of thought that the academies and under-23 leagues don’t provide them with enough competition in terms of playing against (and also alongside) older players to enable them to step straight into the first team if and when the opportunity presents itself.

By putting an age-limit on the reserve leagues many senior managers and coaches feel that players’ development can actually be limited to such an extent that when it comes to turning out in the harsh world of Premier League football many are unprepared for the gap that currently exists.

Of course, the modern system certainly beats the older days when most clubs’ reserve teams were populated by promising youngsters on the way up mixed with a few older pros on the way down; and the age limits have resulted in a levelling of the field in terms of physical development at least.

The question often debated is whether this is actually too much of a levelling and whether the competitive edge generated by the older pros when the reserve teams were open age has been lost.

Consequently, there is less movement overall within the clubs between the first team and under-age / reserve sides in terms of interchangeability and as a result you often end up with completely separate entities.

In some ways this is a throwback to the bad old days when reserve teams were often viewed purely as reserve teams; and for some of the older pros playing at that time a spell in the reserves was often regarded as the easier option.

There were certain times of the year such as at Christmas or Easter for example, where some of the older or more experienced players felt there was a lot to be said for actually being left out of the first team.

A reserve game across the city at Brentford with an eleven o’clock kick-off meant that you were back in East London by mid-afternoon and ready to join in the festivities instead of finding yourself going all the way up the M1 to Huddersfield!

Football has moved on from those days of course, when the fixture list threw up games in quick succession with few opportunities to recover from the day before.

There would often be three games played over Easter; one on the Friday, the Saturday and another on the Monday. On Sunday mornings there would invariably be a light training session as well.

That doesn’t happen anymore and the present schedules at least allow for some rest and recovery in between matches. Despite the protests in the modern game about over-playing, this was the normal in those days but everyone agreed that things had to change; hence the concept of the under-age academies, the under-21s and then the under-23 reserve league.

Back to the present though and there are a lot of managers who are in favour of adopting the Spanish system of having club ‘B’ sides playing as first teams in the lower divisions as opposed to the under-age restrictions of the academies.

The likes of Real Madrid, Betis, Sevilla et al have ‘B’ sides who play in the second division of La Liga against the first- teams of their divisional opponents, thus ensuring that the youngsters get full competitive experience against regular club sides and the chance to prove themselves in the senior divisions as opposed to the academy leagues.

The argument in support of the successful model used by the leading Spanish clubs is simply that players are developing so much younger nowadays than they used to.

Coaches are taking the view that at 16 – 18 years of age (or younger in many cases) these players should be playing regular first-team football and the feeling is that they just won’t get the competitive experience they need to play at higher levels if all their football is governed by the limits placed by the academies.

West Ham United v SV Werder Bremen - Betway Cup Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images

The ‘B’ team route via sides like Real Madrid Castilla, Betis 'B', Villlareal 'B' etc. is therefore seen as the preferred option for promising youngsters to gain valuable and regular first team experience.

Although clubs in England’s Premier League 2 are allowed to field an over-age goalkeeper and up to three outfield players, this still doesn’t address the issue of gaining experience by playing alongside and against more-seasoned professionals.

Reserve team football as such still exists outwith the Premier League; but at the moment the only option for clubs like West Ham United is to send younger players out on loan to clubs in the lower divisions, or overseas in the case of Reece Oxford in order to gain experience of competitive first team football.

It can be a huge jump from the under-age sides into the harsh world of the Premier League so the expression 'competitive first team football' becomes key to the whole argument.

David Gold has already stated that he would love to see more youngsters in West Ham United’s first team. Perhaps the system needs to be overhauled before that day finally comes.