Newcastle fans at a reserve game at Sunderland
It's unusual to see such a big turnout at a reserve fixture, but it reflects the rivalry between these two clubs. The traditional reserves have been replaced in large part by the under 23s and they were the subject of a feature article in The Times last Saturday. The insertion of under 23s into the Carabao Cup has not gone down well with fans and it is a relief that the final will be played between two first teams.
Let's start with the traditional reserves. They were a mixture of players returning from injury, fringe players and young hopefuls. Crowds were sparse, particularly as it was often difficult to find out where they were being played. I was sent by Charlton to cover an Oxford United v. Charlton reserve game, turned up at their old ground at Headington, only to find it was being played at Witney (Wendy Toms was the referee).
Four Four Two magazine had a nice feature on the reserves in February 2007 entitled: 'The Lights Are On ... But No One's Home.' The lead line was, 'Welcome to a parallel universe where admission costs little or nothing and a bad result doesn't ruin your entire week.'
The Times article focused on the fact that Manchester United under 23s are bottom of Premier League Group 2 with just twelve points, behind Sunderland. Most games are played at Leigh Sports Stadium which has a 12,000 capacity. Even though admission is free, not more than 500 turn up. Three games are played each year at Old Trafford, attendances reach only about 4,000 in games against Liverpool or Manchester City. Of course, a lot of United supporters live some distance from Manchester.
Some of the under 23 players are just seeing out contracts worth between £5k and £10k a week, because they know they will not get a better off elsewhere. Top clubs are overloaded with players who they want to stop other top clubs getting their hands on, but to whom they can offer nothing when their contracts expire.