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Pyramid Review, Conference League and B Teams

Media reports in recent weeks have speculated on the creation of a new national league in between SPFL League Two and the Highland and Lowland Leagues. Coverage has unsurprisingly centred on the most controversial aspect of this – the involvement of SPFL Premiership clubs’ B teams – but we understand that SFA member clubs will vote next month on a plan which has three aims:
  • to bridge the development gap for players between the ages of 17 and 21
  • to create more “ventilation” between divisions
  • to facilitate a smoother journey (upwards and downwards) between the national SPFL divisions and the regional leagues which sit beneath it in the pyramid

The Development Gap

The evidence that the development gap exists is compelling – in international football, Scotland’s performance has for many years been strongest at under-17 level, declining in under-19 and under-21 competitions. The reasons for this development gap have not been adequately explained though, and the creation of a new division at tier 5 feels like a solution looking for a problem…

It has been argued that successful nations at under-19, under-21 and A team level allow B teams into their league system, but there has been no convincing case made that the current proposals will address the failings in Scotland’s player development pathway.

Supporters Direct Scotland have sought Scottish fans’ views on B teams several times in recent years. Most recently in March 2021, when we asked for feedback on plans to admit Celtic and Rangers B teams into SPFL League Two the response was unequivocal: 23% for, 77% against. Additionally, only 23% of respondents believed that admitting B teams would improve the development of elite young players in Scotland.

Previously in 2017, when we asked about the involvement of B teams in broader terms the response was almost identical: 25% for, 75% against. The reasons given for this opposition are wide ranging, including (but not limited to):

  • The involvement of B teams will negatively impact the sporting integrity of the pyramid leagues
  • Concern that different development pathways for a handful of clubs will increase the gap between these clubs and the rest of Scottish football
  • Opportunities to compete at a higher level should be given to ambitious clubs lower in the pyramid rather than to B teams
  • Promising youngsters should be given more opportunities in first team football, rather than in B teams
  • Other SPFL clubs will have fewer opportunities to enhance their squads with loan signings
  • Lack of trust in football’s decision makers, e.g. the B teams’ current participation is now in its third year, despite being initially offered as a “one season only” arrangement

Until the existing concerns of fans have been addressed, we remain firmly opposed to the participation of B teams in the Scottish football pyramid.

Ventilation Between Divisions

“Ventilation” is a euphemistic term for relegation and promotion, which stresses the importance of clubs moving upwards and downwards, finding their “right” level, and ensuring competitive leagues at all levels.

The current proposals involve no changes to ventilation at any level of the pyramid, other than to and from the new Conference League. In fact, the so-called “Pyramid Review” which led to these proposals does not appear to have recommended any changes to the pyramid whatsoever. Expansion and integration of the pyramid is a work in progress – beginning in 2014 with the establishment of the Lowland League, and gradually evolving to include the former junior leagues up and down the country – and now has six regional structures between tiers 6 and 10. Within each region there is a smooth, but gradual, process for clubs to move between the tiers, but there are bottlenecks when six leagues transition to two at tier 5, and from two leagues to one at tier 4. Only one place is available each season in each of SPFL League Two, the Lowland League and the Highland League, and each of these places is contested through a play-off. The queue of clubs in the six regional leagues waiting to be “ventilated” is long and slow-moving, and will be unimproved by the introduction of a new fifth tier – in fact, any club with an ambition to progress from the current sixth tier into the SPFL (as clubs like Kelty Hearts have done in recent years) will have an additional hurdle in front of them.

We believe that a broader pyramid review would be beneficial in resolving the challenges and maximising opportunities facing the 240+ clubs currently competing in tiers 5-10 of the pyramid, rather than adding another tier above them.

Transition Between National Divisions and Regional Leagues

The challenges faced by clubs moving from the regional leagues to the SPFL are significant. The financial distribution model in Scottish football covers the four SPFL divisions, but the “trickle-down effect” does not reach the fifth tier. Mounting a campaign to gain promotion to the SPFL is costly, and the financial impact of relegation from the SPFL is severe. As yet, no team relegated from League Two has returned (although Brechin City’s bid for promotion is still alive!)

A positive aspect of the current proposals is that the financial contributions from the B team clubs will provide a stepping stone to the clubs participating alongside them in the Conference League – whether arriving from SPFL League Two, the Lowland League or the Highland League. However, more detail is needed on the eligibility criteria for Conference League participation, and on the financial impact of these changes both on the clubs involved in the Conference League and those who are not (i.e. the Lowland League clubs currently benefitting from the B teams’ involvement in their league).

Whilst we recognise the positive impact of this financial support for teams who would be involved in the Conference League, we believe that additional funding to a new tier 5 will simply shift the problem rather than solve it. Smooth transitions are required between every tier of our national game, particularly where additional club licensing requirements present financial obstacles to the development and advancement of our clubs.

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