For Malky Mackay, it is a step back in time which he regards as pivotal to his plans for enhancing the future development of Scottish footballers.
While much of the Project Brave manifesto Mackay is tasked with implementing is focused on new innovations, the SFA performance director believes the restoration of an old staple of the game in this country is every bit as important.
Reserve team football was discarded in 1998 when, with the formation of the Scottish Premier League, it was replaced with an under-21 competition in which five over-age players were permitted in each team. It proved an unpopular format and, in 2004, a reserve league of sorts was reintroduced but with little enthusiasm from the clubs before it was scrapped in 2009.
With the current under-20 development league widely criticised for the lack of exposure to sufficiently demanding and competitive football it provides for young players, Mackay is backing the return of a reserve league, probably from the start of the 2018-19 season.
The former Celtic and Scotland defender reflects fondly on his own experiences of second-team action and is confident it is a level of football which can thrive once more.
“I do think bringing back a reserve league will be significant,” said Mackay. “Ironically we’re going back to where we were around 20 years ago but I remember playing alongside Gary Gillespie when I was in the Celtic reserve team.
“Gary was 35 at the time, had won the European Cup at Liverpool and it was massively beneficial for me as a young player to have that time on the pitch beside him. He would talk you through games and it’s great to come into a team with experienced pros, because they nurse you through the mistakes you are going to make at 18 or 19. Even if you’re good enough and going to come through anyway, you’ll do it more quickly thanks to the older players.
“I was speaking to Barry Ferguson about it the other day and he recalls playing in a reserve game for Rangers against Celtic when he was up against Peter Grant. He had to learn to move the ball quickly, otherwise Granty would have been right on top of him and dominating him. That’s the sort of challenge which our 19 and 20-year-olds haven’t been getting in recent years, so the more ‘Older v Younger’ and ‘Older alongside Younger’ situations we can have, the better. It’s going to help the young players develop, as will going out on loan. Each will help them to get into their first teams and stay there.”
Mackay, speaking at Braidhurst High School in Motherwell, where he oversaw trials for the next intake of SFA performance school players, feels those in the 19-21 age bracket are being failed in the current environment. A revamp of the loan system, with emphasis on first-team opportunities for Scottish players, is another key strand of Project Brave.
“Our elite young players are hitting this glass ceiling and being overtaken by players who are merely okay,” added Mackay. “The elite ones aren’t getting the experience they need and we need to break that cycle.
“It’s only in the last year or two that we have realised it’s not just the players you don’t want that you throw out on loan, to try and get money in for it.
“There are plans for the bigger clubs to put their younger players out on loan and actually have a plan for them. Loaning is good for them, long term. They don’t get involved in money. The club taking the player don’t pay, as long as they are playing them. That’s something that’s been going on down in England for many years.
“There is the example of Harry Kane, who had six loans out of Tottenham during his development. When I was Watford manager, I had Tom Cleverley on loan from Manchester United. Sir Alex Ferguson had a four-year plan for him. He gave him to Leicester, who were in League One at the time, then to Watford in the Championship, then to Wigan in the Premier League.
“He then brought him back to United in the fourth year, having played 120 games of first-team football, and he was more prepared to be part of United’s squad.
“It is something which is now starting to happen up here in Scotland. It’s something we have to push more and more. The onus is on a club to be attractive enough to get players on loan from a bigger club. Are their facilities OK? Is their coaching OK? Is the way they play football OK? Is the way they treat the youngster in terms of information coming back to his parent club?
“So the onus is on them to persuade the bigger club to give them a talented 19-year-old because they are a good fit for him.
“We have to try to make the loan system more flexible as well. I’ve been talking to Iain Blair at the SPFL about that, obviously within the rules but so that big clubs can come back and recall their players if necessary.
“The feedback I’ve had from the clubs on it so far has been positive. They desperately want players on loan from bigger clubs. There will always be issues over when a player goes out, from a manager’s perspective. Invariably, though, it comes down to relationships between managers and board members.”
Mackay is encouraged by the response to Project Brave and feels he has managed to ease fears over the plan to cut the number of elite club academies in Scotland from 29 to 16.
“I’ve visited 12 clubs already but all 29 academies came to the roadshows we had and, by the end of the two-hour presentation, it was only technical questions being asked – no-one was throwing bricks,” he said.
“Nobody was screaming blue murder about this and that’s because 96 per cent of it is common sense. The devil will be in the detail and, once the bidding document for academies goes out, some will say they can’t afford the full-time staff or meet the measured performance outcomes.
“If that’s the case, then are they actually an elite academy or just a really good community project? But, generally, it’s been very well received, with no shouting matches. There have been a lot of clubs who have come to these meetings feeling angry but, once they realise what’s on offer, they’ve decided to try to bid.”