Celtic and Rangers U20 teams set to quit reserve league next season

Celtic and Rangers are both set to withdraw their under-20s teams from the reserve league next season as they look to create a more authentic experience for their up-and-coming players.

Celtic's Karamoko Dembele vies with Jamie Barjonas of Rangers in the City of Glasgow Cup final. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
Celtic's Karamoko Dembele vies with Jamie Barjonas of Rangers in the City of Glasgow Cup final. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS

Celtic won the City of Glasgow Cup with a 3-2 win over Rangers on Tuesday night but both teams have expressed a desire to move away from the current format amidst suggestions that the sterile nature of the environment does not enhance the development of players on the cusp of first-team level.

Rangers had Continental success in February this year when they beat Roma to win the Alkass International Cup in Qatar while Celtic have fielded their players in the prestigious Uefa Youth League where they have played against their contemporaries from Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City. Such opposition provides a challenge that neither team believes they have been able to get domestically.

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Chris McCart, head of Celtic youth development, explained: “We wanted to create a colts team in the lower leagues but that was knocked back. So now we are looking at other opportunities.

“It isn’t just Celtic and Rangers, there are about half a dozen clubs looking at what is best for their young players. Some of them right now might not be good enough for the first team on a regular basis, but they have outgrown the under-20s.

“We have all put players out on loan which is a great opportunity but you don’t have the same care, or control over these players if they were at your club. We are looking how we can improve the structure and pathway so it is better for the young players, so when they do get the chance, that they are better equipped and keep their place. I think there is a lack of consistency in terms of the quality of teams in the reserve league.

“One week you can be in a really tough game, but the next game you can be winning 6-0 or 7-0. One week you are playing on a quality pitch, but the next you are basically playing on a public park. It is about trying to get consistency.

“You want to come off after every game and think ‘that was a real game and we have learned something there’. A large percentage of the game just passes you by and it is about fitness, rather than 
taking something from it.

“When Neil Lennon was the reserve team manager ten years ago we did the same thing. Lenny would take teams down south every two weeks as well as European teams. James Forrest actually came through that model. He was someone who had outgrown the under-19s. The cross-border games were a good quality and test for us. It is about striking the balance. There is something about the reserve league which is good and attracts us, but you need that consistency and quality in the matches.”

Rangers removed themselves from the reserve league last term and instead opted to play a series of friendly games against English Premier League and European teams. They returned to the more 
traditional format this season but it is anticipated that they will break away from it when the current campaign 
concludes.

“We will announce in the next couple of weeks what we are going to do,” said Craig Mulholland, the Ibrox academy director. “I think the reserve league, going back in this year, while a lot of people have a romantic notion about what reserve football was years ago, if that was still reserve football then great.

“But you are not getting experienced players to come and teach young players. The variables in the competition was such that one week you were winning comfortably, the next week was a challenge. It is not right for developing our players.

“There is no crowd, no press, no real challenge. What we need to do, and we have got some real talent and 40 international players in the Academy, is take them and say ‘right, we are not doing what has been done before’.

“We need to do something different. What we might do next might work, it might not. I think last year’s programme, when we look back on it, was a real success. The boys have played Bayern Munich, played Feyenoord, played Manchester City. So they are used to playing in big games and we hope they go and perform well. You have to prepare them for that, you can’t just hope they get that, you have to prepare them for that.

“We would want something different, we would want a Colt team concept where we were playing against men on a weekly basis. There are 33 top leagues in Europe and 24 play with B teams. The Ajax team that played the other night [against Tottenham] has eight that have played in B teams. So we are not trying to push something that is not already been well researched and doesn’t work.”