By Rob Kelly
It is all change for Arsenal’s rising stars this year: a new season, a new manager and a brand-new, reformatted league structure.
First the boss. Following the retirement of the long-serving Pat Rice this summer, Neil Banfield was recognised for his superb work with the reserves and was promoted to the first team to work alongside Arsène Wenger.
The man to fill Banfield's boots is former Arsenal youth-team player and coach Terry Burton, returning to the Club for his third spell. He will take charge of both the Under-21s and the side competing in the NextGen Series and he is delighted to be back.
“My wife gets a bit upset when I call Arsenal my ‘first love’!” he told Arsenal Player. “I supported Arsenal as an 11-year-old, and stood on the North Bank and occasionally went to the Clock End.
“I came to the Club as a 12-year-old, when Billy Wright was manager, so there is an association there that goes back a long way. Obviously things like the stadium and the training ground are different, but it remains a fantastic club and I have always felt that. It is great to be back.”
Another big change is the competition Arsenal will compete in. Gone is the Premier Reserve League and in its place is the Under-21 Premier League - designed to help bridge the gap between clubs’ academies and their first teams.
The new competition sees 17 Premier League and six Championship clubs divided into three national groups. Arsenal have been drawn in Group One with Monday evening’s opponents Bolton as well as Blackburn, Everton, Norwich, Reading, West Brom and West Ham.
Each club will face each other home and away, with the top three teams going through to the Elite Group, along with the top three from National Group Two and the two strongest from Group Three. The remaining teams are placed into Qualification Group Tier One or Qualification Group Tier Two.
The teams will again play each other home and away, with the top three from the Elite Group qualifying for the knockout semi-finals. The winners of the two Qualification Groups will take part in a play-off to decide who will make up the quartet. The semi-final winners will then contest the final. Although primarily directed at players of 21 and under, teams are allowed to field three over-age outfield players and one over-age goalkeeper.
It is a rethinking of the traditional structure, and for Burton it will provide the perfect stage for the Club’s young stars to demonstrate their first-team credentials.
“Lots of players show themselves at around the age of 17 or 18, and my belief is that people of that age should be featuring in this development league if they are going to be Arsenal first-team players," he said.
“That is what we are looking to do, we want to push through as many young players as we can and give them the best opportunities we can.”
Arsenal kick off the new campaign at Emirates Stadium against Bolton, and Burton believes playing at the venue is part of an invaluable learning curve for his squad.
“We play there twice, but that is two more opportunities than the players might usually have got,” he said. “It will be a useful experience for them and for some it might be the start of a journey that will last them for 10 or 12 years.
“They will all look forward to it, I am sure they won’t get flustered and will just enjoy the whole occasion.”
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