The Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) have recently contacted member clubs in order to gauge interest in Colt/’B’ teams. These sides will be set up with the specific aim of enhancing the development of players aged 17 to 21. But will this move positively transform the fortunes of Scottish teams all the way from club level to the national team or will it erode the prestige of competitions and further widen the gap between the top and bottom?
The proposals put forward by the SPFL’s Competitions Working Group suggest that the Colt sides would begin their journey in the Highland and Lowland leagues with promotion above League One forbidden. The age limit would be set to 21 although the possibility of two over-aged players being allowed to take part in games remains on the table.
There are also proposals that the Colt sides must have a registered ground that meets the requirements for League One and League Two competition and that they will be able to take part in the IRN-BRU Cup but not the Scottish and League Cups.
Now if you ask a fan about the ideas of Colt sides you will hear different views depending on the club they support.
Teams occupying the upper echelons who have the financial and infrastructural means to run a Colt team are warm to the idea.
The opportunity to develop players in that crucial age group of 17-21 years old in the mould of the club’s footballing philosophy, with trusted coaches and cooperation in the club’s own setup, sounds an attractive proposition. In particular, when compared with the current norm of loaning a player out to another club to develop. A shot in the dark to some extent as you are entrusting your asset to another set of coaches and another dressing room environment. The potential to continue developing players aged 20 or even 21 rather than let them go could reap benefits on the pitch and on the balance sheet.
There is also the added positive of competitive experience over the Development League level. Truly competitive football over the development level is a palpable step change for players in terms of the physical and mental fitness required. Playing against teams that will demand competitiveness from your youngsters is the essence of why players are loaned out. That competitive environment and the experience it fosters can not be readily found in the Development League.
However, there are potential pitfalls on the radar if these proposals are voted through.
Club’s that commit are required to have the resources to staff the team on day-to-day basis and must also register a stadium and staff it on match-days to League Two levels. If they chose to leave they must give two seasons notice. There is therefore the possibility that only those with sufficient financial clout will be in a position to operate this. There is even the possibility that some clubs could overstretch their resources to the extent they meet their financial breaking point which could prove disastrous.
It is unlikely that a Motherwell, for example, could effectively operate a Colt setup to the required levels. The rental of a lower league club’s stadium would likely be beyond club’s like them.
However, a Hamilton Accies, with their plastic pitch, enviable youth setup and robust business model may be able to increase the specific resources needed to meet the levels required. They already have a stadium which complies in which there is no fear of overuse of the pitch.
For them them there is a real opportunity in the Colt idea. Additional match-day revenues, the potential improvement of their playing squads and the windfalls from the sale of even more well developed young stars could be attractive to a small, well run club like Hamilton.
And what of the teams that don’t participate? They will make do with the return of the reserve league. Is that a good or a bad thing? Would it be poor man’s drudgery where the prevailing youth policy is to try and catch lightning in a bottle? There should be little doubt that the most talented local youth prospects in Dundee or the Highlands would be more attracted to the potential routes to competitive Colt football over reserve games in front of 50 people on a freezing Monday night in Arbroath.
There is of course the glaring possibility that League One and Two competitions could be devalued. There is a possibility that clubs such as Montrose and Annan could see their support turn their noses up at the prospect of watching their side take on Celtic or Hearts Colts. Who wants to see their side play competitively against a ‘B’ team?
How might this effect the level of progress and growth these sides might make? Could we see smaller clubs squeezed out of senior football all together – occupying the Lowland and Highland Leagues as the Colts squeeze them out?
Colt sides are not an uncommon sight in the world of sport and football itself. Spain. Italy and Germany operate successful domestic setups which feature Colt/’B’ sides. These are nations that compete at the highest levels of the club and international game. Could this be a route Scotland could follow and reap rewards from?
With the aim of this to attempt to raise Scottish football as a domestic product and to increase competitiveness on the continent and internationally there is a real chance to do just that. But it could also end up widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
The risks are real and the results, good or bad, could influence the game in Scotland for decades to come.
Perhaps those clubs in the Scottish Premiership ill-equipped to participate could be left behind as clubs like Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen and Hearts reap the benefits and stretch out ahead. Thus making the competitiveness of the domestic game an even bigger punchline.
Whilst Scottish football undoubtedly wants to improve and reach heights long consigned to memory it must be done in a way that takes the whole of the game with it and doesn’t simply enable the monopoly of success to root deeper than was ever thought possible in pursuit of the lower hanging fruit that would be continental success for the nation’s bigger and more dominant clubs.
If the gap can be shown to narrow as the quality of the clubs below the top two or three raises up then I am all for Colt sides. I’m all for anything that improves the game as a whole in Scotland. But if it in fact fuels the gap we could be on the brink of disaster.
And it would be just like Scotland to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.