The decision to scrap the Scottish Premier League reserve league last year has left a void in to which those too old for the under-19s and too callow for first-team football have fallen.
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Those clubs who voted to disband the reserve league did largely on the grounds of cost, thinking their increasingly thin squads could no longer cope with the demands of under-19, reserve and first-team football. Regardless, it is hard to argue that a generation of footballers over the age of 19 are being deprived competitive football, or have been thrust into the full squad before they are ready.
There is an alternative, but it is fairly radical and not universally popular. The prospect of some, if not all, clubs in the SPL fielding a B team in the lower reaches of the Scottish Football League has been mooted several times in the past, but has failed to get off the ground.
Neil Doncaster, the SPL’s chief executive, is midway through a strategic review of all aspects of the Scottish game, with his wide-ranging proposals set to be put to the 12 clubs before the end of the year. Around the same time, Henry McLeish, the former first minister, will present part two of his Scottish Football Review. It is wholly conceivable that one, if not both, will again address the possibility of SPL clubs providing reserve teams to compete in the third division as part of a wider restructuring.
At first glance, it seems a win-win proposal. The afore-mentioned 18 to 23 age-band will benefit from regular, proper football, returning to their clubs in better shape to face the rigours of SPL football. The existing third division clubs would presumably enjoy increased attendances from facing sides representing Rangers or Celtic, with the standard of the league raised by the presence of more technically gifted players.
Celtic, in particular, are thought to be keen on a concept that has been an established part of German and Spanish football for many years. Gordon Smith, the former Scottish Football Association chief executive now back working as an analyst on the BBC, is another backer of the proposals.
“I had been an advocate of this for a while now,” he told Herald Sport. “If Rangers and Celtic, for example, entered a B team in the lower leagues you can imagine there would be bigger crowds at these games.
“There would also be a benefit to the SPL clubs, and in the longer-term the national team, as they could field their younger players and give them match action at a competitive level. I think the difficulty, though, might be in convincing the lower league clubs. There didn’t seem to be a great appetite for it among the SFL clubs when I was at the SFA.”
On that front, Smith has hit the nail on the head. From the boardroom to the dressing room, the message is fairly unequivocal from third division representatives: what’s in it for us? “Fundamentally, the question is, why would we do it?” asked Paul Martin, the Albion Rovers manager.
“If the bottom line is we are going to develop better young players for the national team, and Craig Levein got more hardened, game-ready players, then I think it would be a good idea. There’s no better place than the second or third division in which to do that.
“For those clubs already in the third division, though, I don’t think they would benefit much from having the likes of Rangers and Celtic in there. You start to cloud our issues. We’re trying to make our teams better and it would stop our development. The integrity of the competition would certainly be damaged.”
Neil Watt, director of football at Clyde, alighted on a similar theme. “From a football point of view, you have to ask: for whose benefit is this? I would contend that it would be hugely to the benefit of an SPL club to have a second string in the SFL.
“Looking beyond that, you could suggest that it is for the benefit of the game as a whole, with young players playing on a better stage and getting more experience. This sounds terrible but you could argue that, because there’s less football played in the third division, that’s not a bad environment for a young player to learn in.
“But does all that benefit the SFL clubs? Probably not. It just seems to be a selfish way for SPL clubs to get their younger players, and those not getting a game on a Saturday, into a better sporting environment.”
Watt did acknowledge the financial benefits of allowing Rangers and Celtic to field teams in the third division. “You might get Celtic fans living in Stenhousemuir, for example, coming out to watch a Celtic B team play there. So it might boost the crowds which would bring in more money to the SFL. That can only be a good thing in difficult times.”
Martin, though, was wary that increased attendances could also bring problems. “There are other negatives brought about by playing Celtic and Rangers, if you know what I mean,” leaving his answer vague but the inference clear. “It adds another dimension if there are going to be greater crowds. In my opinion that just brings more problems trying to manage those situations.”
Watt digs out a copy of the SFL’s constitution to make his final point. “There’s a line here where it says the SFL will “promote, guard and further the interests of its member clubs”. By allowing the SPL to put reserve teams into our leagues, how will that promote, guard or further the interests of those clubs already there?”