Scottish football minnows set to bloody noses of Old Firm over fifth tier

<span>Photograph: Richard Sellers/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Richard Sellers/Getty Images

It has been worth contemplating Luton Town’s rise from oblivion to the promised land of the Premier League in the context of Scottish football.

The introduction of a pyramid system in 2013 was the Scottish Professional Football League’s way of making out they were doing aspirational clubs a favour. To follow Luton’s lead, the winners of the Highland or Lowland League would need to beat the other half of that duo before also winning over two legs against the team who finished bottom of League Two.

Scotland’s three tiers underneath the Premiership offer just one automatic promotion spot plus more playoffs, with the nature of them weighted so heavily in favour of the 11th-placed side in the top flight that Championship clubs rarely prevail. The SPFL fiercely protects its own; doing a Luton is the Scottish game’s equivalent of scaling an ice wall in slippers.

Related: Celtic sweep Inverness aside in Scottish Cup final to secure domestic treble

The dust will barely have settled on Scotland’s season when the kind of legislative rammy that is all-too common plays out at the Scottish Football Association’s annual general meeting. There, a plan to introduce a new division – a 10-team Conference League – beneath League Two will reach a 105-member vote. The scheme has proven wildly controversial, primarily but not exclusively among clubs lower down the pyramid who feel they would essentially be relegated by one league.

Brora Rangers, of the Highland League, revealed they will vote “No” after impassioned pleas by supporters. Raith Rovers, a Championship club for whom the Conference League would make no material difference, will do likewise. “It presents a potential for unfairness towards a significant number of clubs competing below tier four,” read a Rovers statement.

The core motivation for the proposal is providing a long-term home for the B teams of Celtic, Rangers and Hearts, from season 2024-25. Aberdeen had considered joining but regarded the scheme not worth the six-figure cost. Queen’s Park also appear to have backed away despite initial interest. What the Old Firm want in Scotland, they tend to get; which renders the politics of this situation hugely interesting.

Cowdenbeath latched upon the fact B teams could not be promoted or relegated. “We are not enthused by a construct which envisages delivering to supporters of Scottish football a full League season over 9/10 months effectively involving just six competing clubs,” read a statement. “The other 40% of the league’s proposed membership is seemingly to be self-selected and will operate with a wholly different agenda.”

The basis for B teams in a serious league setup is sound enough. It works in other countries. The lack of opportunity for Scottish youngsters in the Premiership should be alarming for anybody with the best interests of the game at heart. By the end of April, just 18 Scottish players aged 21 or under had started a Premiership match during the 2022-23 campaign. Of that group, only eight started 10 games. The average age of Scottish Premiership players is 27. Only one Scot, Charlie Reilly of Albion Rovers, featured on the Professional Football Association’s player of the year shortlists. Scotland’s most successful recent exports, Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney, had made 86 and 139 first-team appearances by their 21st birthdays.

Tierney departed Celtic in 2019. It is reasonable to question whether the Scottish champions, or their old foes at Ibrox, have any real interest in the promotion of Scottish talent. Both clubs are stuck in a competitive vortex, where winning at all costs trumps everything else. The playing of youth players only ever looks like tokenism. Celtic’s starting XI for the Scottish Cup final on Saturday included two Scots; the 29-year-old Callum McGregor and Greg Taylor, a £2m purchase from Kilmarnock. Hearts’ recent record is no better, with the club at least adamant that must change.

Failure to secure a majority vote would represent an embarrassment for the SFA’s chief executive, Ian Maxwell, and the incoming president, Mike Mulraney. There is no question that the governing body failed in regards to the messaging attached to the Conference League. There was no proper public relations plan and no attempt to win over hearts and minds by pressing home the player development big-picture. Instead, negativity was allowed to prevail.

That said, the SFA’s role is neither to create nor run leagues. That falls directly under the remit of the SPFL, whose £400,000-a-year chief executive, Neil Doncaster – also a board member at the SFA – has been conspicuously quiet on tier five. Doncaster and his clubs shut down talk of league reconstruction when it was proposed as a short-term fix as Covid hit. The league will not entertain talk of homegrown player quotas, rewards for clubs who consistently field emerging Scottish talent or even an expanded top division to permit breathing space to managers with an interest in the promotion of youth.

There are few people who regard 42 clubs within a league setup in a country as small as Scotland as sensible yet, somehow, increasing that number by 10 will reach the ballot box. There is no joined up thinking here at all. The jewel in the SPFL’s crown, the Premiership, is not only shockingly low on quality but also a competitive non-event. Scottish football needs a radical overhaul.

Michael Beale, the Rangers manager, is lukewarm to the idea of B teams against low grade Scottish opposition. “We have the Conference League vote coming up,” he said. “Will that prepare my young players to be involved in the Europa League and Champions League? Not so much. But if we can play Chelsea, Liverpool etc then I think you can somehow bridge the gap.”

If, as now expected, the Conference League notion is thrown out on Tuesday, it will be heralded as a win for the little people. Large clubs are unlikely to accept receiving a bloody nose from minnows. Their response will be fascinating.