Words: Andy Ross
A report in yesterday’s (21 January) Sunday Mail suggested that a pilot scheme to introduce both Celtic and Rangers’ colt teams into the SPFL could begin as soon as next season. Should this move be approved I believe it to be a dagger through the heart of lower league football in Scotland, a nonsensical threat to teams with tradition and history.
There has been talk in the past that such an idea could come to pass, the colt teams (I even hate the name – can’t we get back to U20’s, reserves or I’d even settle for development team?) have for the last two seasons taken part in the Irn Bru Cup – an idea which has had generated little interest or excitement among fans of the top-flight teams or indeed supporters of lower league sides.
So naturally those in charge of our game have opted to take this idea one step further…
The article in the Sunday Mail states: “The plan is not limited to Celtic and Rangers’ set-ups, despite the pair being front and centre of the bid to persuade clubs of its benefits. It’s also understood, however, that others who have expressed an interest previously – Aberdeen, Hearts and Hibs – may be interested in the long term but aren’t ready to take up a place as early as the summer, paving the way for the two Glasgow clubs.”
So there we have it, if the report is accurate, what essentially is happening here is an open-invite party into the bottom tier of Scottish league football. The colt teams can’t be promoted beyond League One or relegated out of League Two – should they finish in these positions then their place would be given to the senior club above or below them in the table.
This is my first issue with this idea, while many of the lower league sides aren’t backed in big numbers, the vast majority have history and tradition dating back over 100 years. We now have a scenario where they could lose their league placing due to one of the bigger team’s youth sides taking their place – even if they have finished above that side in the league! It is a real kick where it hurts for teams in the Highand and Lowland leagues too, their season long battle to earn a SPFL place, is mocked by propelling a colt team into the SPFL.
Rangers currently don’t enter a team into the Scottish Development League, yet are happy to get on board with having two teams within the league structure, a seemingly pick and choose attitude to when they will get invovled. Where is the logic in giving Rangers Colts a place in League Two when they don’t play in any other Scottish competition other than the Irn Bru Cup (which also includes Welsh and Northern Irish teams).
There will no doubt be arguments that the guaranteed revenue from the 250 tickets that Celtic and Rangers will take for every game will be a much-needed boost for the teams struggling to survive financially. Again, I take a much more cynical view of this, it essentially seems that the Old Firm are paying their way into the league structure – when they get their feet underneath the table, they can play their part in relegating teams (under absolutely no threat of suffering the same fate themselves) out of the league structure, there’s no way that this isn’t going to have a more detrimental effect on these sides – there’s a high chance teams well drop out of the league and into oblivion.
At £10 a ticket for these 250 tickets, the usual pricing structure is also being ignored, a search across the League Two ticket prices as listed on their individual websites suggest that except for Edinburgh City, no other team offers adult entry for less than £12 – while pricing is perhaps an argument for another day, this is another indicator that this ‘deal’ isn’t quite as fruitful as it seems.
This can be coupled with the argument that it has been evident in recent times that Celtic and Rangers fans don’t turn up for meaningless games – are they going to back their colts team in League One or League Two? I highly doubt it. Look at the crowd for the Irn Bru Cup fixtures, they’ve been pitiful – some lower league chairman may be seeing pound signs, but the reality looks drastically different.
There is sure to be backlash from the loyal followers of lower league club’s too. A recent survey by the Scottish Supporters Network found of 1,071 respondents, 74.4% of fans (797) saying no to colt teams within the football league pyramid. A total of 24.3% (261) of fans answered yes with (1.2%) of fans (13) saying they didn’t know.
A small sample of the view of supporters perhaps and I’m not oblivious to the fact these teams carry a much smaller fanbase combined than the likes of Celtic or Rangers, but it in absolutely doesn’t make their voices just as important. It would totally offset what appears to be a bribe in the form of committing to the 250 tickets, if season ticket holders turn their back on supporting their team due to the clear disregard for their opinions, fair play or the competitive nature of the game.
Of course, their support is also not just limited to matchday, merchandise, club fundraising and social clubs are all key elements of these club’s continuing to operate. When you already have a small fanbase, why go against their wishes and risk losing them for such little benefit?
Concentrating on the development of youth players in Scotland, something that is apparently the rationing behind the introduction of colt sides into the league structure, I struggle to comprehend the view that youth players dropping down to play against League Two part-timers will improve them enough to get to the standard they aspire too either. The current loan system enables that opportunity for players to play at a level their parent club believes to be suitable alongside more experienced players works just fine. Look down the Scottish leagues and there are many examples of players who have improved greatly by going out on loan, not just in Scotland but also to England and further afield. A perfect example for me is Callum McGregor who spent a season on loan at Notts County, he has returned to become a Celtic regular and now is a big player for the national team – would he have achieved the same playing in the bottom tier of league football in Scotland as part of a youth team?
While I’ve only given a brief outline of the fundamental issues I have with the introduction of colt sides into the SPFL, looking at social media and fan forums, it’s extremely clear that I am far from alone in being totally against the idea. Supporters of ALL clubs in Scotland against the move have to make their respective club’s totally aware of their disapproval – otherwise they will have to prepare themselves for yet another ridiculous initiative having a hugely negative effect on the Scottish game.