B teams explained: How Celtic, Rangers, Hearts and Aberdeen could fit into new Conference League in pyramid revamp
Another revamp of Scottish football’s pyramid is being mooted in order to fully integrate ‘B’ teams into the leagues, but it is far from straightforward.
Lowland and Highland League clubs have been given to the end of this week to respond to proposals for a new fifth tier Scottish conference league which would potentially include Celtic, Rangers, Hearts and Aberdeen B teams. It is the most plausible option of three put forward by the pyramid working group to shoehorn Premiership colts teams into Scottish football’s competitive league structure, but falls short of integrating them into the SPFL itself.
Influential figures at the Scottish FA would like to see ‘B’ teams properly integrated into the league pyramid, preferably within the SPFL itself, to address a ‘development gap’ for talented young players in the Scottish game. But there are lots of obstacles in the way before it becomes a reality and time is running out.
What is the new proposal?
To create a new 10-team ‘Conference League’ in 2024/25, or potentially next season. It would be the new fifth tier, but outside the SPFL and positioned between SPFL League Two and the Lowland and Highland Leagues.
Celtic, Rangers, Hearts and Aberdeen B teams would be joined in the league by Lowland League and Highland League clubs to make up a ten-team division. The B teams would not be eligible for promotion to the SPFL.
It was one of three options presented to clubs last week and the one that is now being taken forward.
What were the other two options?
The first two involved expanding the SPFL by adding ‘B’ teams and leading Lowland and Highland League clubs. It would be done either by bolting on a League 3 at the bottom of the SPFL or by expanding the number of teams in League Two. B teams would be allowed to rise as high League One under both scenarios.
The big problem with both options is that it would require SPFL clubs to vote for it. There is little prospect of that happening. Most semi-pro SPFL clubs in League 1 and League Two are opposed to bringing in ‘B’ teams.
Why is option 3 the most viable?
Quite simply, it doesn’t need the same high level of voting support from SPFL clubs. The ‘Conference League’ would be established as a separate company and would be part-funded by ‘B’ teams paying an annual entry fee.
It isn’t too dissimilar from the current Lowland League arrangement. It could perhaps secure support from clubs in the tiers below if it meant opening up more promotion places to ease the current bottleneck.
What are the drawbacks with this option?
It is similar to the situation the Lowland League currently finds itself in, with B teams unable to get promoted into the SPFL. Ultimately, that is what Scottish FA chiefs are trying to achieve and this doesn’t deliver.
Lowland League clubs have also been trying to abolish the promotion play-off against the bottom team from League Two, to increase their prospects of getting into the SPFL. But the ‘Conference League’ plan makes that less likely.
Why? Because SPFL clubs would have to approve a new promotion and relegation mechanism between League Two and the new ‘Conference League’. It would be difficult to get sufficient SPFL support for that, especially if it meant potentially allowing a team who finish fifth in the the new ‘Conference League’ table, behind the four B teams, to be eligible for promotion.
Are there other sticking points?
Yes. The other big one is that very few Highland League clubs have shown an interest in being part of this idea, one that has been talked about before. Buckie Thistle are currently top of the Highland League but president Garry Farquhar has already raised concerns about the “horrendous” amount of travelling that would be involved and doesn’t appear to be in favour.
What is the current state of play with B teams in the Lowland League?
Celtic, Rangers and Hearts have B teams in a 19-team league this season, but they are ineligible for promotion and it is a one-season arrangement. It was squeezed through last year after member clubs were split 50-50, the league chairman’s casting vote proving decisive.
Rangers and Celtic are currently first and second, with Hearts 14th in the table. The B teams are ‘guest’ clubs who pay an annual £40,000 fee. They cannot vote and cannot be declared champions, but results against them do count.
Time is running out before Lowland League member clubs will have to decide what happens next season and beyond.
How does the rest of the pyramid fit in?
Tier six clubs were very unhappy about the Lowland League’s decision to bring in Celtic, Rangers and Hearts B teams as guest teams this season while not increasing relegation. Consequently, the East, West and South of Scotland League champions will again be playing off for just one promotion place this season.
Clubs like Linlithgow Rose, Beith, Darvel, Auchinleck Talbot and others have invested in their infrastructure to obtain an SFA licence on the understanding that they would be able to progress through the league pyramid quickly and follow in the footsteps of Cove Rangers, Kelty Hearts, FC Edinburgh and Bonnyrigg Rose. They feel they are being held back.
Introducing another tier above them and not opening up the number of promotion places into the Lowland League and/or the ‘Conference League’ would be another slap in the face.
Are Hibs interested?
They are understood to have been part of the discussion, but some of the guarantees the Easter Road club were seeking have not materialised so they are taking a watching brief for now. Hibs academy chief Steve Kean has been pushing for more games against English under-23 clubs. Hibs have been part of the revamped SPFL Reserve league this season, albeit playing only five games so far, and have had European fixtures for their under-19s.
Why is there a push for B teams to be in the pyramid?
Key Scottish FA figures believe there is a development gap for talented Scottish players between the ages of 17 and 21.
They have conducted research and found that seven of the world’s top 10 nations have B teams as part of their domestic structure, including Croatia, Spain, Portugal and Netherlands. They believe that integrating B teams into the competitive league structure will help bridge the gap.
It isn’t universal by any means, but there seems to be wide agreement on this point among influential figures in the game. The opposite is probably true of fans, who don’t like the idea. The sticking point is not ‘why’ B teams should be properly integrated. It is ‘how’.