Around this time last year, discussions started with regards to what should be done about some club’s reserve teams. It was possible, that if the status quo remained, the First Division may have up to six reserve teams playing in it.
The SWPL’s rules and regulations prevented two teams from the same club in it (and rightly so), which meant that the two highest placed eligible teams in the First Division would be promoted. Potentially this could be 7th & 8th place!! This possibility set alarm bells ringing and the majority agreed that something had to be done.
After months of discussions, a new Development League was to be formed. Seven SWPL clubs showed interest, but one team quickly backed out due to financial reasons. The six teams would play home and away and a league table would be kept to ensure it remained a ‘competition’, but goal difference wouldn’t be kept, to ensure that the main reason for the games was ‘development’. A mid-season cup would also take place, which would be played in a ‘mini-tournament’ format over two days.
The one mistake that was made was that it hadn’t been made mandatory for SWPL clubs to have their reserve teams in the new league. In the weeks leading up to the start of the season, two teams pulled out. The four remaining teams were adamant however, that it should go ahead, and it was quickly agreed that teams would play each other four times (twice home and away). The cup competition would also remain.
I personally was very excited about this new league and it fitted in perfectly with the changes that I had made at Hibernian. At the senior end of the club, I had reduced our three squads into two, slightly larger ones. The first team remained, but with an additional two or three players to what we would normally carry, and a very young Development Squad was put together as a bridge between U17s and the First Team. This squad would play their weekly football in the South East regional 2nd Division. For our reserve games, the aim was to use it as a way of getting any first team players necessary game time, and give development squad players opportunities to be tested at a higher level.
Once the league started, further benefits were found depending on each team’s individual circumstances. None more so for us, than the second weekend of the season. Our game away to Rangers was cancelled, so we sent the majority of the first team up to Forfar for the reserve game on the Monday night. We had got our players to a certain level of fitness and we didn’t want the unexpected idle weekend to affect this. The game itself, despite a heavy win for us, was very beneficial, and I know that Forfar’s young team on the night will have gained a lot from the experience. Because of the sensible rules that had been put in place, the heavy scoreline didn’t actually matter, as it was simply three points gained in the league table but no scoreline reflected in the goal difference.
All six league games and the two-day cup tournament have been very competitive and valuable and I’m sure all teams involved would agree. Other benefits have included us giving experience to other coaches of leading a team on matchday, and it has also allowed me to take a step back from the game and watch certain specific elements or individuals a lot closer.
A number of first team players have gained valuable game time and confidence from the matches, and the younger ones that have played, have possibly developed quicker than we expected, due to exposure to a higher level of competition.
I’m looking forward to the remaining six games, and I’m sure more teams will buy into the concept and join next season bringing even more value to it.
Written by Willie Kirk | Hibernian Ladies manager