Scottish football's continued B team mess - Celtic, Rangers, Hearts and the pyramid frustration
It was left to East Stirlingshire to convey, in 21 words, a very clear issue within Scottish football and its increasing antipathy of it working as it should. That could be seen on Monday night as the Lowland League, the fifth rung in the pyramid, confirmed its continued persistence with B teams for a third season in a row. A result of a vote “following the Pyramid Review undertaken by the Scottish FA this season”.
A key aspect of the year-long review was a new league – the Conference League – appearing out of thin air, reportedly for next season, a year earlier than originally suggested. In a statement by Caledonian Braves, one of five teams, along with the Shire, to vote against the inclusion of B teams, this new hamfisted league, made up of those pesky B teams, Lowland and Highland League sides, was viewed by both the SFA and SPFL as “an adequate solution”. Reading between the lines, it appears that some clubs felt agreeing to the presence of the Colts sides was a way of keeping the wolf from the door. In this instance the dreaded Conference League. An unfortunate but somewhat understandable position but as the Braves pointed out the “ongoing discussions around B clubs continues to reflect negatively on our league.”
B teams here to stay
Go back to the start of the 2021/22 campaign and the proclamations that the Celtic and Rangers B teams would be a one-time only presence in the fifth tier. Anyone who believed that insistence was either incredibly naive or simply foolish. Once those two clubs had their foot in the door all they were going to do was yank it open further and further until it was no longer on its hinges. In doing so, it allowed Hearts to join them this season. Like it or loathe it, B teams are here to stay. The way in which it has happened is really hard to stomach, especially for more than 100 clubs up and down the country already in the pyramid.
The B teams have jumped the queue and are now just in this period of stasis in the Lowland League. For some, a lingering, unwanted stench. As for a new tier, it would essentially relegate all those sides below the SPFL who wouldn't be part of the Conference League. How did we get here? Money and the status of those teams involved. It is easy to understand why Celtic, Rangers and Hearts are so keen to have these second sides. Don’t let them kid you it is to help the national team. It is not. Down the line there may be benefits for Scotland but it is not an altruistic venture, that can be viewed in some of the signings made by the Old Firm. It is about helping those clubs develop players to improve their own first-team and/or make money. The likes of Alex Lowry are not going to benefit from slumming it in the Lowland League, Michael Beale pretty much admitted so but it could be hugely beneficial for the clubs’ 16 and 17 years olds who get that exposure in such an environment, a mix of the club's culture and coaching.
Big fish getting bigger
Why should that matter to other clubs? It shouldn’t. It doesn’t. As the Shire, the first team to be relegated from the SPFL as part of the opening of the pyramid, noted it “is not in the best interest of Scottish football and only highlights and benefits the might of the big clubs at the expense of the smaller club”. The big fish will continue to get bigger as the small fish feed off smaller scraps.
B teams, ever since they were mooted, were a divisive subject. They will continue to be. Many within Scottish football don't feel they belong at any level. As mentioned, however, with Celtic, Rangers and Hearts now with second-string sides, they are not going to turn back. Their presence within the pyramid would be slightly more palatable if they were made to start from the bottom and work their way up to an agreed level. The three clubs - and any other SPFL sides which want to join them – would be unlikely to find it appealing but it would at least ensure sporting integrity.
This is where the SFA and SPFL come in. If they want to show some leadership and carry out a proper review of the pyramid they should be aware that it requires more extensive work, even reconstruction, than simply creating another league. Spartans’ Lowland League-winning striker Blair Henderson said the pathway into the SPFL needs to be "opened up". The same can be said for the pathway into the Lowland League. In the current format it is still going to take a number of years for “clubs to find their competitive level" as the Shire put it. It is far from a straightforward fix and there are plenty of moving parts, especially at a level which is part-time, including geography, running costs and tradition. The play-offs between the Championship, League One and League Two work so well, those below don't. There is a real fear from clubs in the SPFL of falling out. Yet, opening up, increasing the pathway between divisions, can remove that fear, clubs knowing they don’t have to win an uneven league then two play-offs to return.
That's what the Shire mean by a “properly constructed and ventilated pyramid structure”. Not some hamfisted nonsense engineered to keep a few of the bigger teams happy.
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