Under-Strength Teams And The Twenty-Five Man Squad Rule
There can be little doubt that, for the moment at least, the Premier League is more competitive than it has been in recent years, with just six points seperating Bolton Wanderers, in fifth place in the table, from Birmingham City, who currently occupy the third of the division’s relegation places. Even Chelsea, at the top of the table, have lost three matches from their opening thirteen. It is against this admittedly unusual background that the recent decision of Ian Holloway to make ten changes to his team for their match against Aston Villa has to be framed. Although Aston Villa only won that match by an odd goal in five (with that goal coming with just a couple of minutes of the match left to play), might a “full-strength” Blackpool team have held on for a point or managed to scrape another unlikely away win?
Comparisons have been drawn between Holloway’s selection last week and that made by the Wolverhampton Wanderers manager Mick McCarthy for Wolves’ trip to Old Trafford to play Manchester United last year. McCarthy rested a number of players for this midweek match (which Wolves lost 3-0) ahead of a match against Burnley at the weekend. Wolves beat Burnley and finished the season in the Premier League, while Burnley were relegated. He would doubtlessly reason that the end of season league table vindicated his decision, but the Premier League apparently disagreed and handed the club a suspended £25,000 for their troubles. If we use the same criteria for judgement upon Holloway, we will not be able to establish the extent of his success until the end of the season, but a goalless draw at bottom of the table West Ham United on Saturday was probably not what he was hoping for. One point from six matches leaves Blackpool two points and three places above the relegation places.
There has been one significant change made to the rules of Premier League football since the McCarthy incident caused so much discussion at the end of last year. During the summer, the twenty-five man squad limit was introduced, and this perhaps should change our perception of what a “full-strength” or “under-strength” team should be. The rules of most competitions state that teams should play their strongest available team for matches, but this was always a fuzzy rule which seemed to benefit bigger clubs more than it ever could smaller clubs. The definitions were never clear enough to make a great deal of sense. The twenty-five man actually sharpens what the definition of what a “full-strength” team should be. The obvious question to ask at this stage is: now that football clubs have clearly-defined markers on where their squad begins and ends, isn’t it time to end the charade of the notion of Premier League clubs deliberately playing “under-strength” teams against each other?
Ultimately, Ian Holloway’s responsibility is towards his own club and, unlike Wolves playing Manchester United last year, Blackpool’s match against Aston Villa is unlikely to have much of an effect upon the ultimate destination of the Premier League title. It is, however, worth taking a moment to also consider Holloway’s post-match comments on the subject. Holloway stated that, “Yesterday was the first time we’d had three games in a week and I’ve got every right to do whatever I like, I believe” and, in a somewhat worse-advised comment on the subject of Mick McCarthy’s team selection against Manchester United, that, “More fool you Mick, because I believe I can. Maybe you don’t believe in your team as much as I believe in mine”. Holloway has since has apologised for the comments made about McCarthy, but has reiterated his much-repeated claim to resign should he be fined by the Premier League for his team selection in the Aston Villa match.
Holloway stands to look a little foolish should the Premier League go ahead and fine him – or his club – for fielding an under-strength team against Aston Villa. Would he seriously resign over such a relatively trifling issue? Few Blackpool supporters believe that he would go through with such a bold claim and, whilst it has been suggested in the deepest, darkest recesses of the internet that he may even be trying to engineer a position in which he can resign in order to take another job, such speculation seems to be nothing more than the idle speculation of conspiracy theorists. There are cases for and against Holloway’s team selection against Aston Villa being against the rules (or the spirit of the rules), but the fact of the matter is that the real issue here is the rule itself.
It feels as if the Premier League has overlooked the introduction of the twenty-five man squad rule. Of course, the twenty-five man squad rule is not what it says on the tin. Clubs can also add as many players under the age of twenty-one to their list of twenty-five as they wish, for one thing. There is, however, a tacit admission within the twenty-five man squad rule that modern football is a squad game just as much as it is a team game. If a player is good enough for the squad, he should be good enough for the first team, and the fact of the matter is that teams have been playing under-strength teams when it suits them for as long as anybody can remember. Perhaps the biggest difference between now and the past is that the glare of the media is greater than it was.
If the Premier League tinker with these rules, the likelihood is that managers will find a way around them and greater equality within the Premier League in itself could be achieved with a more even distribution of television and prize money, from sharing gate receipts, but there is little likelihood of that happening in the near or distant future. The introduction of the twenty-five man squad rules offers the Premier League an opportunity to allow managers to not have to worry about the somewhat ridiculous subterfuge that they have to go through in order to rest their players from a rigorous schedule. It’s not ideal, but it would at least avoid charades such as the one that we have seen over the last few days.
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