Rangers B team SPFL agenda revealed as Michael Beale and Ian Maxwell push for Conference League

Comments from SFA chief executive and Rangers boss are telling
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The proposed Scottish Conference League has had plenty of flak from fans and pundits alike, but those who support the idea have not helped the cause. In the past few days we have heard Scottish FA chief executive Ian Maxwell and Rangers manager Michael Beale both sharing their views on the merits or otherwise of Scottish football's new fifth tier.

Maxwell, one of the key flag bearers of the proposal, says he has “taken on board” the frustration felt by the 200 or so semi-pro clubs further down the pyramid who would all move down a tier if the new league comes in. It’s a bit late for that. These clubs were not consulted on a proposal which is now set to be voted on at the Scottish FA annual general meeting on June 6. Their concerns may have been “taken on board” but they haven’t been acted on. Nothing has changed.

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Maxwell confirmed on Clyde Superscoreboard what we already knew about the SFA’s apparent rationale for seeking to create the Conference League: improving “player development” for the national team. He refers to Scotland under-19s failing to qualify for major tournaments for more than 10 years. “There’s an obvious decrease in standard at that age,” he said, adding that the under-21 national team has also been “decreasing over a period of time”.

Maxwell, quite rightly, wants improvement on that front but his suggestion that “introducing B teams will hopefully do that” must be taken with a large pinch of salt when it comes to the Conference League. He cites evidence from other countries, including Croatia, to back up his point. What he neglects to mention is that the Old Firm B teams have already been in the Lowland League for two years. That is surely long enough to make some sort of assessment about how much it has benefited the Celtic and Rangers players who have been involved at that level.

If I was to hazard a guess, I’d suggest that it hasn’t made much difference to their first-team prospects. Why? Because the jump from there to the top of the Scottish Premiership is far too big. If Rangers, Celtic, Hearts and everyone else are not producing enough good players at under-19 and under-21 international level, a detailed analysis of youth player development and pathways through the teenage years would be more useful than creating a controversial new Conference League just a small step higher up than the Lowland League.

If too many young Celtic, Rangers or Hearts players are already not quite good enough at the age of 18 or 19 compared to those in other nations, is there any evidence that playing for the B team against part-time clubs in the fifth tier of Scottish football for the last two years has helped?

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Beale doesn’t think so. Rangers, of course, are one of the driving forces behind this proposal, but the manager admitted this week that the Lowland League isn’t a high enough standard to test his young players and that the under-20 rule is too restrictive. Essentially, he wants Rangers B to be playing far higher up in the SPFL and to have the freedom to field players of any age. That is the end goal and that should be the focus of the real debate. The Conference League idea is merely a step in that direction and a marginal step up from the current Lowland League arrangement at best.

Michael Beale believes the Lowland League age cap for B teams is too restrictive for RangersMichael Beale believes the Lowland League age cap for B teams is too restrictive for Rangers
Michael Beale believes the Lowland League age cap for B teams is too restrictive for Rangers

“I don’t think the Lowland League is a good bridge so we need to look at other games,” revealed Beale earlier this week. “In the last month our B team played Chelsea, Liverpool, Celtic, Manchester United and Sunderland. It’s important to give these boys a bridge and create something like an old-fashioned reserve team, where the boys who aren’t playing for me, or are coming back from injury, play with the youngsters.”

There has been a 10-team SPFL reserve league this season, albeit one that involved only nine midweek fixtures, but Rangers chose not to enter and take up the opportunity to field an ‘old-fashioned reserve team’. It will be interesting to see if that changes under Beale’s leadership next season.

“I don’t like stopping the likes of Ianis Hagi and Robby McCrorie playing games,” he added. “The Lowland League is too restrictive as it’s under-21. I understand why it was brought in but I think it is restrictive.

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“I would like a programme that is more creative, bespoke and can-do. The club is really pushing with others to get our teams in the pyramid like in Portugal, Holland and Germany. It’s important people making the decisions give us some oxygen and light at the end of the tunnel. We have that with the Conference League vote.”

So, let’s get to the crux of it. The end of the tunnel is League One. I don’t think Maxwell or Beale really believe that a Conference League would help produce better players for Rangers or Scotland’s under-19 or under-21 national teams. It’s not a high enough standard. Maxwell is under pressure from the Old Firm to push their B teams up to League One, hopes that the Conference League will be a step in that direction and is promoting it as the option of least resistance. Twist enough arms among SPFL clubs and the Old Firm will get in eventually seems to be the strategy.

That’s why Maxwell’s “fully funded fifth tier” comments should also be taken with a pinch of salt – because the long game here is for the Old Firm B teams to reach League One. They wouldn’t be funding the Conference League at that point.

What about Hearts? Well, if Aberdeen came to the conclusion that running a B team in the Conference League would be too expensive, it is difficult to see how Hearts could fund a full-time second team in perpetuity. By finishing 13th in the Lowland League this season, their young B team have done little to suggest that they are ready to move up a level just yet.

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The Old Firm are the real driving force behind this. But Beale has revealed he’d also like to remove the under-20 age cap and allow senior first-team players to drop in and out of the B team playing at that level. SPFL clubs would need a lot of persuasion (or money) before ever accepting that. There are a lot of issues to iron out and unpick when it comes to B teams and the Conference League proposal makes things worse rather than better.