Recent proposals to introduce Celtic and Rangers B Teams into the Scottish League system (alongside added teams from Highland and Lowland divisions) have sparked a flurry of discussion for and against the proposal. Here we take a look at the main considerations and speculate over the good, bad and the ugly impacts of such a move.
The main positives of such a move have been listed as greater exposure for young players at both Celtic and Rangers to the “real world” of competitive football, which is seen as a mechanism to exponentially improve and assist in the development of young players. Similar examples for such B Team formats are present across Europe and many established players on the continent have progressed through such a system. The key examples cited are those in Germany, Portugal and the Netherlands, all of whom have established and high quality development records. There are also benefits financially for lower league clubs, who would receive further payments for a few years under a new agreement and also potentially extra revenue from any games against these B Teams.
Opponents to the idea highlight the fact that ultimately, this format benefits Celtic and Rangers the most. It is them and only them who would benefit from more experienced/better developed youngsters – whether through having these players become “oven ready” for first team football sooner, or indeed financially through selling players whose value would be greater owing to established experience in a competitive league. Jim McInally, Peterhead manager, who has also worked within the Celtic youth system summed up this stance quite clearly when he outlined an acknowledgement of the problem faced by Old Firm youth teams in terms of finding competitive environments for young players to develop and the result being that often young players lack the experience or need loan moves to become ready for the first team, but also outlined that it is not the job of the lower leagues in Scotland to develop Old Firm youth teams.
Taking the above outlines therefore, what can we expect in terms of results and offshoots?
Firstly, Rangers and Celtic will undoubtedly benefit through exposing young players to more football. As both clubs have strong youth systems and youth teams anyway, this will likely have a certain benefit to the wider development of youth players across the country. Young players may be fast tracked to the first team after proving themselves in the lower leagues, within a known environment at the club – the rationale being that it is easier to monitor progress in house than while on loan at East Fife. In theory a player could also be tried in a new position within the youth team to serve a wider goal or gap in the first team which may have wider benefits – Rangers or Celtic for example couldn’t dictate to Stenhousemuir that their young player should play at right back rather than his normal centre back role simply as an experiment.
As above, there are financial benefits for the clubs involved, both those in the Lower Leagues and the Old Firm through extra payments, gate receipts (post Covid) and player development. A further offshoot from the latter will be a greater pool of players for lower league clubs to sign from. For those players who don’t make the grade to the first team either by virtue of ability or through timing or blockages in their path forward, lower league clubs will be able to rely on a proven track record at that level when signing rather than taking a gamble with an untried youngster who may only have played youth football in a comfortable, sterile environment as would currently be the case. This will then benefit the players and lower league clubs in the long run, should there be late developers or just in terms of adding greater certainty and solidity to squads which in turn would in theory assist in raising the standard and competitiveness of the lower leagues.
There are however some downsides to this hypothetical scenario however. With this greater exposure, greater prospect of development, greater prospect of first team opportunities or indeed greater future-proofing in terms of career prospects within the lower leagues, the Old Firm become far more attractive propositions for young players. For example, a young player with offers from Rangers, Aberdeen, Hearts and Falkirk may be more inclined to choose Rangers for the reasons outlined above and while they may develop in a positive way, this is to the detriment to Hearts or Falkirk who may have benefitted from the player choosing them in the past owing to, for example, a greater chance of making it to the first team. This potential hoovering up of talent could therefore have some knock on effects for those other Premiership clubs as well as those higher up in the lower league system or the Championship. These other clubs could miss out on good talents who then become Rangers or Celtic B players in League 2 and perhaps remain there for their careers, when they could have made it much further through a more orthodox development model at Hearts.
Taking this one step further, with far superior youth systems, the whole of Scottish football may then become even further polarised than it currently is, with Ranger and Celtic dominating both the senior and youth development sectors. With so much influence and power over the development of players and the ability to attract more and more talent as these benefits are realised again and again over the years, they grow exponentially while a larger proportion of other clubs lose out, perhaps only on a player a season, but incrementally over time.
The obvious response to this is therefore “why don’t Hearts or Aberdeen also introduce B Teams?” which would then allow the benefits of the youth development side to be realised in a more uniform fashion across the country and through a wider range of clubs. This in turn would even up the playing field to an extent, present the opportunity to other clubs and potentially offer a greater range of young players an opportunity to develop in this environment – if we assume a squad of 22, then each club then has 22 oven ready footballers. So while the number would be 44 with the Old Firm, this could be 88 with Aberdeen and Hearts whcih would then add in to the wider benefits as previously outlined.
All very good in theory. However the reality is different. Finance has a huge role to play – the reason that reserve leagues were scrapped previously was the inability of clubs to cover the costs of this. If finances can’t be found to cover the cost of this, then running a completely new “club” in the form of a B team will likely prove equally difficult for a number of other clubs clubs. Similarly, sticking to the concept of reserve leagues, if a number of other clubs started B teams then there would very quickly be a situation whereby League 2 could become a Premiership Reserve league plus Elgin, Brechin and selected others, which then goes full circle back to a format which was ditched previously.
Notwithstanding the fact that the above format is clearly unworkable for most clubs, another reason it wouldn’t be compatible would be that alongside Celtic and Rangers B, extra teams from Highland and Lowland Leagues would be added to League 2 to make this league bigger. In effect therefore, there is no room for any other B teams, even if they wanted to enter. The deal and arrangement tabled has been done purely on the basis of the Old Firm B teams, a closed shop effectively, which again takes us back to the polarised dominance of these clubs.
Now yes, Aberdeen could in theory enter a B team in the Highland League and Hearts in the Lowland (if allowed and if not required to start in feeder leagues to those leagues) and through the pyramid system they could end up in League 2 and potentially derive a level of benefit similar to the above in terms of player development, albeit at a level slightly further down the pyramid. So there are options and avenues for other clubs to take part or take advantage of such a structure.
However in the short to medium term, it appears that through careful negotiation and well placed financial incentives, Rangers and Celtic have ensured that their own interests in terms of player development are fully covered, but it remains to be seen what wider benefits or disbenefits are experienced throughout the rest of Scottish football. Will the wider advantages of a strong Old Firm development system be realised, or will this stifle wider development?