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New Scottish Conference League would be a vote against hopes and dreams

Hope and ambition are the lifeblood of football, but a proposed ten-team Conference League at the fifth-tier level could stymie this by effectively relegating the clubs below it. This would be a travesty, potentially spelling the end for some of our beloved lower-league sides.

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This article first appeared in Issue 28 which was published in June 2023.

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BBC Scotland reported in April that just 18 Scottish players under the age of 21 had featured in the Premiership this season with two clubs fielding none under that age. But would this plan seriously change that?
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Even if you support the aim then the method is madness. At a time when community or fan-owned clubs are on the rise, why would any such club support this plan unless you were only interested in your own club?

A short walk from the banks of the River Tyne lies Millfield, the neat and tidy home of Haddington Athletic. The ground is surrounded by trees, hedges and houses with a small covered standing area opposite the dug outs and the obligatory pie hut. While it is beautifully distinctive in its own way, grounds like this can be found all over Scotland, especially in rural communities.

Haddington, East Lothian’s market town, has a population of about 10,000 – that’s twice as many people as live in Dingwall, home to Scottish Premiership outfit Ross County. However, there are 150,000 people in surrounding East Lothian which, according to the most recent statistics, has the fastest growing population in percentage terms in Scotland. In contrast, Ross and Cromarty has a fairly stable population of around 50,000. East Lothian is also one of the few parts of the Scottish mainland with no current representative in the SPFL.

Ambitious Haddington, along with neighbouring clubs like Tranent, Musselburgh, Preston Athletic and Dunbar United would like to change that. 

The Hi His have a long history as a Junior club dating back to 1939 before joining the senior ranks in 2018 and gaining full membership of the SFA in 2020. Last season they gained promotion to the East of Scotland Premier Division, the sixth tier of Scottish football. Haddington’s first season at this level has been a success and they will finish in the top half of the table. They have youth teams across a number of ages for girls and boys and a healthy support from local businesses in the county. While it’s unlikely, without finding their own Roy McGregor, that they can emulate Ross County, there’s no reason why they couldn’t hope to progress through the ranks like Cove Rangers or Kelty Hearts.

Promotion to the Lowland League would put them within touching distance of the fourth tier of Scottish football. But plans for a new ten team league just below the SPFL which would feature Premiership ‘Colt’ teams and a small number of Highland and Lowland league sides could put an end to that.

The story of clubs like Haddington is the lifeblood of football. Hope, ambition, and with it the potential for despair. Under the plan for this new league perhaps only one of those – despair – would remain.

The intentions behind the new league are generally good – closing the development gap for talented young players – but the consequences could lead us to back to a time when the Scottish leagues were effectively a closed shop. Back then, you could lose every game in the lowest division and still be sure that come the following season, you’d be back in the mix.

In England, the pyramid system has been delivering new blood into The Football League since the 1980s. Quite astonishingly, it’s only ten years since that began to happen in Scotland.

Before the 1980s, in England the bottom four teams in the Football League’s lowest division were obliged to stand for re-election. Existing League members would vote on whether to keep them or bring in a non-league team. In Scotland, there wasn’t even a vote.

In England, since 1987 winners of the fifth tier (then the Conference) have been granted automatic promotion to the Football League. In Scotland, that still doesn’t happen.

In England, a second team now goes up through the play-offs which have been expanded to include eight teams in the National League. In Scotland, that still doesn’t happen.

In England, four teams are relegated from the National League with the winners of three regional leagues gaining promotion and 18 others from across those leagues involved in play-offs for the final position. In Scotland, the East, West and South of Scotland League champions will again be playing off for just one promotion place to the Lowland League. In the Highland League it’s even worse with the winners of the three leagues below playing off against the bottom team for one spot.

If you think that’s complicated then try actually getting into the SPFL itself. The outcome, since the play-offs were introduced in 2014, has been weighted heavily in favour of the league side. Firstly, the Highland and Lowland league champions play each other, then the winners meet the bottom team in League Two – who’ve had a week of rest while they’ve been battling it out – in a two-legged play-off with the winner gaining SPFL status. And the League Two team gets the final game at home.

It’s a testament to the strength, determination and ambition of Cove Rangers, FC Edinburgh, Kelty Hearts and Bonnyrigg Rose, the only Scottish non-league sides to make it through this exhausting process, that they have been able to progress further through the SPFL.

One of the arguments against creating a proper pathway over the years was that Junior football in Scotland was strong and those clubs had no desire to join the senior ranks. That has now changed and many who were big names in Junior football are now part of the senior pyramid system. Membership required significant investment in facilities and in many cases a youth system, yet with the potential rewards of league status dangled, many clubs chose to opt in.

If anyone was in any doubt about the abilities of these sides, Darvel’s demolition of Aberdeen in this season’s Scottish Cup should have put that to bed. And to think that the Ayrshire club weren’t even the best team in their division this season, the sixth tier of Scottish football.

The proposal for the new ten-team Conference League at the fifth-tier level would include four B teams from Celtic, Rangers, Hearts and most likely Aberdeen, alongside a total of six Lowland and Highland league sides sitting above those very leagues. 

The Lowland League accepted Rangers, Celtic and Hearts’ Colts teams into the division for an experiment last season – a decision made solely on the casting vote of the league chairman which shows just how divided the issue is – for a fee for £40,000 each from the Premiership clubs. That’s a lot of money for teams in that league and some of their crowds have also been swelled by a few hundred Old Firm fans seemingly keen to see the next generation of stars even if that may be a false premise.

The Colt teams can’t gain promotion from the Lowland League but for the Old Firm in particular, it’s been more or less a romp for their talented youngers week in, week out. Rangers have scored 98 goals while Celtic scored 96. The belief of some is that by integrating B teams into the competitive league structure, it can address a “development gap” for talented young players in the Scottish game. BBC Scotland reported in April that just 18 Scottish players under the age of 21 had featured in the Premiership this season with two clubs fielding none under that age. But would this plan seriously change that?

B teams in the league is not uncommon in Europe, though at a higher level than this plan and with significant caveats including restricting the number of non-indigenous players in a side. Croatia, with a similar population to Scotland and a similar dominance at the highest level of a small number of clubs, has had B teams for years and 66% of its 2018 World Cup final squad had played in a B team. The average age of a Croatia player making a full international debut in 2020 was 20.5 – in Scotland it was 23.23. In 2020, 76% of the Netherlands’ Under 21 squad were B team players and two thirds of the Portuguese national team had played for B sides.

B teams were included in reconstruction plans put forward by some clubs during the controversial truncation of the 2019/20 season due to Covid but only as part of a wider proposal to create three senior leagues of 14-14-18 which, it was believed,  would also provide greater long term security for many clubs. Interestingly, the new Conference league with B teams was part of that plan but would have come in BELOW the Highland/Lowland Leagues. 

So while there may be some laudable aims behind the idea of a new Conference League, this plan could be a real challenge to sporting integrity. You could finish fifth, for example, and get promoted to the SPFL. It would be very difficult for sides below the league to join with only six places up for grabs and one relegation slot. The price for this? A £100,000 entry fee for the Colt teams. To put that into context, that’s about 0.015% of Celtic’s turnover in 2022, or a month’s wages for some of its players.

It has to be said that the clubs in the Lowland League have at times been their own worst enemies by failing to encourage promotion or create more jeopardy in their own league. The Highland League clubs meanwhile have been mostly quiet about these plans but it’s thought they are worried about travel costs among other things. 

Scottish football faces many problems – the huge financial disparity between the Premiership and the rest, the lack of proper marketing, a TV deal that doesn’t even deliver the agreed number of games, poor support for officiating below the Premiership, a media that lacks interest in anything other than Celtic and Rangers and large parts of the country that have no representation in senior football.

Since the SPFL’s forerunner, the SPL, was created in 1997, just 19 clubs have played in the top tier. And one of those 19 – Gretna – no longer exists. That shows the complete lack of opportunity to reach the summit which is a barrier to investment for those below the top level where failure can see income fall off a cliff.

Worse than that, in the ten years since the SPFL opened up to new clubs, just four have made it through the arduous journey to league status. That is an even greater risk for ambition. A comparison with the English leagues shows just how many more “new” clubs have made it up in recent years – Forest Green, Fleetwood, Salford, Harrogate, Crawley, Sutton and Barrow to name just a few.

Even for those who have fallen on hard times, the route back is easier than in Scotland where no team that has dropped out of the league has made it back in. Luton won promotion back to the Football League in 2014 and are now in the play-offs for the Premier League.

If this plan succeeds, it makes things worse at the bottom and provides a cheap way for bigger clubs to hoover up young talent. That might make sense if our top clubs were full of Scottish youngsters; as that BBC report shows, this isn’t the case. The bigger clubs are already losing young talent to England as a result of changes post-Brexit, so for clubs outwith the Premiership would there be any point in investing in youth teams?

Even if you support the aim then the method is madness. At a time when community or fan-owned clubs are on the rise, why would any such club support this plan unless you were only interested in your own club? 

I don’t think it’s too dramatic to suggest this could be a watershed moment for Scottish football. It took far too long to open up the main leagues to ambitious clubs in the pyramid system but this would further narrow the already tiny gap they have to squeeze through while failing to address the supposed main issue of better developing young players.

And with it, the romance of a pleasant walk through the woods to watch the likes of Haddington on a Saturday afternoon while dreaming of glory days at a higher level will be gone forever too.

This article first appeared in Issue 28 which was published in June 2023.

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