Conference League fails to solve Celtic & Rangers problem and causes another

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Why Aberdeen rejection of new B team plan should allow the status quo to continue – for now

Aberdeen’s rejection of the proposed Scottish Conference League has been cheered to the rafters by all those who oppose B teams. It doesn’t make the issue go away just yet, but it might allow time for reflection, consideration and proper consultation about two very different problems that resulted in one flawed solution.

Producing better elite players who are good enough to play for our biggest clubs and enhance the national team is one problem. Improving the pyramid structure so that semi-pro community clubs can rise and grow or fall and recover to the right level... is another problem altogether. The two should not be conflated.

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Influential members of Scottish football’s hierarchy are convinced, or have been persuaded, that B teams playing in a high-level, competitive semi-pro league will enhance elite player development and, ultimately, improve the national team. Their evidence is that it has worked in other countries of a similar size who have outperformed Scotland on the national stage.

Rangers and Celtic want their B teams to be allowed up as far as League One, but it is proving to be problematicRangers and Celtic want their B teams to be allowed up as far as League One, but it is proving to be problematic
Rangers and Celtic want their B teams to be allowed up as far as League One, but it is proving to be problematic

The Conference League doesn’t come close to solving that problem but simultaneously creates another. Of course, we all want to see better Scottish players coming through the ranks, playing for our top teams and improving the national team. But there are lots of reasons – too many to list here – why young players are not coming through at Celtic, Rangers and Hearts that don’t have anything to do with the part-time professional league that B teams may or may not be competing in.

One of the problems with the Conference League proposal is that it purports to be an improvement to Scottish football’s league pyramid. It is, however, nothing of the sort. League Two clubs are still not going to vote to allow in B teams, whether there’s a Conference League or not. It is quite clear from the reaction of semi-pro clubs across the country that the Conference League would also be a step back for the pyramid and sporting integrity in Scottish football, with 200 or more clubs all moving down a level to accommodate the new league.

This idea has been railroaded through the ‘pyramid working group’. There was very little in the way of consultation with all the clubs potentially affected. Indeed, when tier five clubs in the Lowland and Highland League were presented with it, the status quo was not one of the options.

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All three options were underpinned by one long-term goal: to do what it takes to push the B teams hard and fast towards SPFL League One. It was really never about the pyramid. The Conference League became the favoured option, not because it was the most practical, in the best interests of the pyramid or even in the best interests of the the B teams themselves, but because it was the only option that wouldn’t fail because of a vote from SPFL members.

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The logic is that creating a brand new league and shoehorning it in at tier five means no vote is required. Inviting clubs to join along with the B teams, set up a new company and, hey presto, it’s done. The only clubs interested in applying, of course, would be those lower down with ambitions to go up. Don’t apply and they’d be left behind was the thinking.

But there is another vote which the pyramid working group had hoped to keep under the radar. The vote at the Scottish FA annual general meeting to approve a new league and its relegation and promotion mechanisms is due to be held on June 6. Full member clubs – but only those who have had membership for a long time – will have an opportunity to approve or reject the proposal… if it isn’t shelved or ripped up beforehand.

Aberdeen’s refusal to take part means the status quo – Hearts, Celtic and Rangers B teams playing in the Lowland League – makes far more sense, even if it has yet to be put forward as an option at all. The status quo doesn’t get the B teams any closer to the SPFL but neither does the Conference League. Sticking with what is in place now at least maintains the sporting integrity of what is, after all, a league pyramid that is still very much a work in progress.

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The real challenge for the Lowland League is to open itself up at the bottom, relegate more teams and offer more promotion places. That would be a step forward for the pyramid itself and give Celtic, Rangers and Hearts B teams much stiffer opposition at the same time.

Lowland League chairman Thomas Brown explained recently that member clubs won’t vote for that until there is automatic promotion for the champions to SPFL League Two, an attitude that leads to stagnation over progress. That being the case, the pyramid working group would make more progress by threatening to cut off the Lowland if it doesn’t increase ventilation. That would be sure to change minds and move things forward a little. The Lowland League will only get stronger if more clubs are allowed to come up from below.

Another Conference League flaw is the suggestion or assumption that it would be a step up for B team players from the league they are in now. A slight one, maybe, but playing the same teams over and over in a ten-team format is surely not going to help youngsters develop. And let’s not forget that Hearts finished 13th in the Lowland League, so their young players have hardly set the heather alight or done enough to suggest they are ready for promotion.

As for the B teams themselves, do we really know for sure that they are here to stay? Is it really about helping the national team or the clubs themselves? Aberdeen’s main reason for rejecting the Conference League was estimated cost, an additional £400,000 a year for more full-time players and staff. If it’s too expensive for them, will Hearts have similar decisions to make in the future too? Queen’s Park, it has been suggested, could replace Aberdeen. That would last until the money runs out too.

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Hibs, meanwhile, have explained that they are not interested because B team fixtures in the Lowland League or Conference League would be on the same day as the first-team, thereby reducing rather than enhancing opportunities to promote players to the first-team squad. That doesn’t tally with the pyramid working group’s theory. Celtic and Rangers might also decide in the years ahead that there are other or better ways of developing their young players.

The current B teams arrangement, with three of them playing in the Lowland League who must be voted in each year, is far from perfect. But the three teams are here now and the status quo would allow more time to assess the benefits and the drawbacks.

In the meantime, abandoning the Conference League would get semi-pro clubs across the country back onside. They may not be producing players (at senior adult level anyway) who will enhance the national team, but they take their football seriously and have been an integral part of their communities and the very fabric of Scottish football since the game began. Unlike B teams, they are here to stay and their concerns must be heard.