Making Up The Numbers?
I always find something particularly disconcerting about European clubs entering their B teams into the same professional structure. In 2018, the Juventus U-23 side was officially formed and entered Italy’s Serie C, just two tiers below their first team. Consider the resources available to Juventus U-23’s that their opponents in Serie C aren’t party to. Should they start to under-perform in the league, what’s stopping their parent club propping them up with some lucrative signings in January? Also consider that, in theory, with their reserve side present within the professional structure of the Italian football pyramid, Juventus no longer have any need to loan young players out to Serie B/C sides to gain first team experience. Hence, these players are no longer available on the loan market for prospective borrowers.
Does this really guarantee fairness and integrity in the league?
Juventus have won the last 8 Serie A titles and were leading (albeit by one point ahead of Lazio) the season’s league table before the Coronavirus brought a halt to proceedings. Does the introduction of their reserve side into the same footballing pyramid just cement their hegemony?
This practice doesn’t just exist in Italy, I hasten to add. Among others, it exists in Spain, Germany, Portugal and Holland, though in this instance a considerable number of Eredivisie teams have reserve sides in the second and third tiers of Dutch football.
It now appears that this could be making an introduction into Scottish football.
In the aftermath of COVID-19, a piggy-back proposal from Rangers, furthering that proposed by Hearts, has been tabled to the SPFL. A 14 team top and second flight (removing this season’s relegation but maintaining promotion) and an 18 team third division, which would include Celtic and Rangers B teams provides the essence of the proposal. This stipulates that:
Rangers and Celtic B teams can only climb as high as the Championship, with a player age limit of 21;
The Old Firm will purchase at least 200 tickets for each away fixture at a cost of £15 for each game, mitigating potential losses in ticket sales, and would pay £1,000 to stream those matches, where available;
Other Premiership clubs could also apply to have 'B' teams starting in the Highland and Lowland leagues, tiered below the proposed 18-team League One, replacing the promoted sides Kelty Hearts FC and Brora Rangers;
Strategic partnerships with the loaning of players and coaches from the Old Firm are also being proposed. This doesn’t do anything to encourage a more competitive Scottish game and eventually will result in an over-reliance from the lower-league outfits on these partnerships, at the expense of their own academies, which cost money to run. Is this really healthy for the growth of Scottish football? No team other than Celtic or Rangers has won the Scottish top flight since Aberdeen in 1985 and Celtic have now won the last nine titles. Would the introduction of these B teams further cement this dominance and really ensure that the other teams are just making up the numbers?
The Coronavirus, according to SPFL chairman Murdoch MacLennan left the league with "no realistic option but to call" the season and conclude the current campaign with the current league positions as final. Inevitably this has brought some problems. It's a difficult one. With no precedent set, there’s no right or wrong answer
It has also accelerated the discussion regarding the league’s potential expansion. Relegation - given the circumstances - is out of the question as far as Hearts are concerned, who have threatened legal action now that league positions have been confirmed as final. This has ended up with Hearts owner Ann Budge being in the unusual position of being granted approval to work on a temporary league structure to alleviate this controversial problem. Initially, her proposal of an expanded Premiership, Championship and League One, to fourteen teams each was rejected, but the idea of expansion generally is gaining some traction.
An expansion to fourteen teams in the top flight, irrespective of your stance on Hearts’ potential relegation, is one that does hold some support in Scotland. In fact you could argue that there’s appetite for an even bigger expansion, perhaps even to 16 or a Bundesliga sized 18, with teams playing each other twice, home and away.
Currently the league splits into two parts for the final five games of the season, the bottom 6 playing each other once, either home or away and the top 6 likewise. This comes after 22 home and away fixtures against each team and then 11 further fixtures against each team, meaning that after 33 matches (when the league officially splits into two) your side has the advantage of having played some opponents at home twice and away once, with the disadvantage of having played others at home once and away twice. All in all it’s a logistical nightmare and is a massive turn off to current and prospective fans.
This isn’t exclusive to Scotland and it’s not exclusive to football. Rugby League tried this recently, with the Super League’s “Super 8’s” concept being eventually ousted after three seasons for a more conventional league structure, with automatic promotion/relegation and a smaller playoff pool to qualify for the Grand Final.
The problems with the current structure are plain to see. The unfairness or irreconcilable nature of the home/away splits doesn’t help matters. Equally, the structure of these fixtures engender a tiresome explanation and questions on an annual basis. Some argue that it exists to ensure more Old Firm fixtures for broadcasting targets, but surely this waters down the concept when Celtic and Rangers could feasibly play each other six times in a season if they draw each other in the cups? The other problem is that the integrity of the league somewhat collapses upon the split. It doesn’t take into account how tight or competitive a particular league season could be. For example, the 7th placed team could be far closer to the European places than relegation, in terms of points, but upon the split that door is closed. Splitting leagues or having some form of intra-league qualification only seems to work from an entertainment or integrity point of view, if teams are qualifying for a play-off or play-out series (and nobody seems to be yearning for a Premiership Grand Final at Hampden Park, do they?). Otherwise what is the point, other than teams just making up the fixtures?
The current system ensures 38 league matches in a season, with a Winter break guaranteed, the equivalent of a 20-team division playing each other home and away twice. An expansion to 16 or 18 would ensure 30 or 34 home and away fixtures, respectively - providing that there’s no play-off structure to the divisions, which looks set to remain.
Looking further down the leagues, six teams in the Scottish Championship have graced the top flight in the last ten years. In League One, it’s not that long since Falkirk and Raith Rovers were up there. Attendances are also strong. Scottish football has the highest percentage of population attending football matches in Europe. This extends throughout its leagues. In the Championship, Dundee United have averaged 8,496 a game this season and next door in Dens Park, Dundee have averaged 5,277. In fact the top five attended clubs in Scotland’s second division comfortably compete with those in the bottom half of Scotland’s Premiership, before you take into consideration any potential increase in average attendance from promotion. Furthermore, ‘relegated’ Hearts have also just announced that 6,000 season tickets have been sold for the forthcoming season, irrespective of which division they end up in.
So there’s plenty of pedigree down there and appetite for expansion. Perhaps the league’s structural change would encourage the cream to naturally rise to the top and for Scottish football to garner the benefits.
In the long-run, expansion seems a logical solution to the Scottish football’s problems. However, having Old Firm B teams competing in this pyramid would further cement their hegemony in Scottish Football and brings the strength of the league under further scrutiny, particularly if they were to compete one tier below their parent clubs. If they were to follow the Dutch model, where all professional teams’ reserve sides compete at some point along the promotion/relegation pyramid, that may counteract it somewhat, but how sustainable or likely is it for all Premiership sides to enter B teams further down the leagues? I’d fear that the Kelty Hearts and Brora Rangers of this world, would eventually fall further and further down the system and eventually out of existence, were all 12 Premiership sides to enter reserve sides in the structure.
Additionally, a streamed Championship match between Rangers B and Celtic B is unlikely to attract considerable viewing figures from a new, non-partisan audience. A Dundee derby, however, might.
Ultimately, whether any structural change can be concluded in the next couple of weeks remains to be seen.
Brian Hargadon, Green Brigade Tifo, https://www.flickr.com/photos/celticphotos/6065012526
Zhi Yong Lee, Tynecastle Stadium in February 2007, Creative Commons.