Andrew D Duffy
A Colt From The Blue
Updated: Mar 16, 2021
Little did Scottish Football know it when it was brought to a halt on Friday 13th of March, but a radical, new, innovative concept was less than three months away from being unveiled and delivering us all from evil.
Yes, those selfless, self-sacrificing, perpetual doers of good, known to some as The Old Firm, were back to their heroic best. The Righteous Rangers had a card up their sleeve, you see; an Innovation Paper, a New Deal, and Courageous Celtic were backing them all the way up.
Thick as thieves. Fish 'n' Chips. Salt 'n' Vinegar. Rock'n'Roll. Batman and Robin. Celtic and Rangers.
The prospect of paying for Covid-19 tests for players, staff and officials? BIFF! The draining of funds with no income from flesh and blood supporters? BAM! No hospitality, no lower league broadcast deal? POW!
See, our heroes, pure of heart and of noble intention, had the answer all along.
Rangers and Celtic Colt Teams.
'Fear not, diddy clubs! We'll save you! With this brand spanking new, never before seen, unheralded Innovation! We'll give you £250,000 (to be reduced by £25,000 each term across a four-year deal, after that beat it) plus we will purchase at least 200 tickets at a cost of £15 for each away game PLUS pay £1000 to stream each of our matches (should facilities be in place).
And of course, you will be able to share a pitch with us, proper Football Institutions. Global Icons (well, our development team, not our actual team. But hey, look at those badges. That's your cue to swoon). '
Tempting, right enough. All Scottish Football has to do is take the money, sign on the dotted line and Good Times Are Here Again. Shangri-La here we come.
The media, the pundits, across newspapers, radio, TV, Podcasts and the like, positively ate it up. The standard was raised and a-marching they did go to the sound of the Celtic and Rangers drums. It was like a three-line whip had been issued by Francis Urquhart himself on behalf of our Dynamic Duo.
Presumably they could see the honour, selflessness and charity woven so tangibly through the proposition.
Alas, there's a wee bit of a hitch or two there, unfortunately for Bill and Ben. First of all, this wasn't all that new. See, Rangers and Celtic have been pushing for the inclusion of their colt teams/B teams/youth sides/'Development Squads' in the league system for some time now, even as recently as 2019.
What good fortune, then, what divine providence, that the idea that they pushed for what must have been non-Covid 19 reasons in 2019, 2018 and many many times before that just happened to also be the ideal solution to an entirely Covid-19 problem years later.
What a turn up for the books!
Hold on a wee moment here. What if this isn't pure altruism after-all? What if there's the odd ulterior motive at play? Can't be. Not Celtic and Rangers, surely! They wouldn't do such a thing to Scottish Football, would they?
They'd certainly tell you that this was all about the rest of the sport in Scotland, rather than themselves. No, this is all about 'ensuring no club is worse off as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and to inject "new finance" into the "vulnerable" lower leagues to improve standards.'
Yeah. That word sticks out to me, too. 'Vulnerable.'
See, the reason this is an old idea is because the Lower Leagues have always rejected it. They've always said no, like they said no in 2019 and in 2018. Like they said no to Gordon Smith in 2009. Like they said no before that, and before that, and before that.
What changed? The Covid-19 virus, of course. It struck Scottish Football like a bolt of lightning; CHOOM! And suddenly they were vulnerable.
Weakened pray. Easy pickings. Blood was scented and the sharks began their terrible swim downstream, hiding behind Crocodile Smiles and An Offer They Can't Refuse.
The idea is that the leagues would be restructured to 14-14-18. On it's own merits then; badly needed money for clubs in the lowest league? £75,000 per club in the first season is substantial. So is £50,000 the next season and even £25,000 the season after that. In their 'guaranteed away ticket' purchase, last time they offered to pay for 250 tickets at £10 a pop. Now it will be 200 at £15, albeit last time the proposal was for a 12 team league, rather than 18.
And since you would be playing each team home and away, presumably each team only gets the away ticket purchase once, in your one game at home to the visiting colts?
Even so, it's free money and, as pundits like Steven Thompson and others have insisted on programmes like Sportsound amongst others, the old firm fans will attend lower league grounds in their 'thousands' to see their beloved Colt teams in action.
Alas for Thommo et al, we have evidence of precisely the opposite from the Challenge Cup, where Celtic and Rangers youth teams play lower league sides already and categorically do not travel in their thousands.
Indeed, the average attendance in matches featuring lower league sides and Old Firm colts in that competition, over the three complete iterations of the competition since their first involvement in 2016/17 season, is actually...
Given that the average attendance in the bottom tier in season 19/20 was 487 already, a season ended early (average in season 18/19, which completed, was 502), that doesn't on the face of it appear to offer much value.
Granted, in the uncompleted 2019/20 version of the competition, Rangers Colts did get over 5,000 in Ibrox for the match against Wrexham but since that is a home game in a stadium they would not use in League 2 and an English side they would not play in League 2, it hardly seems fair to count such matches as proof of their overwhelming attendance figures in the lower leagues of Scottish football.
As many fans have pointed out, it would appear Rangers and Celtic fans actually care as much about their Colts side as everyone else does, in that they barely care about them at all. It seems much more likely that the only fixture to bring out the masses of Old Firm fans will be the two Old Firm B matches themselves, when they play each other, make a mess (probably in someone else's stadium, as they wouldn't lower themselves to allowing Ibrox and Celtic Park as venues) and, of course, vent sectarian bile.
Player development is another big selling point in this grand plan. Get the young Celtic and Rangers players, limited to 21 years old and under, playing against experienced players in the lower leagues who are playing for livelihoods, who are fighting for promotion or to avoid relegation or for win bonuses. This is how they will develop, playing against seasoned, battle hardened vets.
The likes of Neil McCann and Steven Thompson and myriad others on the BBC Sportsound team, the newspapers and the other advocates of this move, simply forget, or more likely don't even realise, that the average age of League 2 players is, er, 25.2. This actually makes it the youngest League, on average, of the four that make up the current SPFL.
Even if, then, the principle of getting the youth players of the Old Firm to play regularly against experienced campaigners is a noble one, League 2 is literally the worst of the leagues you could parachute them into on that criteria.
Putting that inconvenient truth aside, what of the concept of superior youth development? All the pundits rush to use Andy Robertson, Scotland Captain and Liverpool left back, as an example of exactly why getting young players playing in League 2 is so beneficial. Robertson was sent packing by the Celtic youth set up, so ended up joining Queens Park in the bottom tier, playing first team football and eventually getting a move to Dundee United off the back of his efforts. This led to playing in the top tier, impressing sufficiently to earn a move to English side Hull City and then Liverpool.
Here's Neil McCann citing him as an example;
"The classic example is [Liverpool and Scotland defender] Andy Robertson, who left Celtic but is now captain of our country. He's captain because he got real football at a good level, and afterwards a brave manager took him to Dundee United - then he went on to flourish."
Yes Neil, but if he was playing for an old firm colts team rather than Queens Park, how likely is it that he'd have been able to go to Dundee United and get first team exposure at that level so quickly? Seems to me that he'd have been more likely kept in the Celtic system that released him, kept in the Colt team until and unless they decided to take him into the first team squad of Celtic proper, rather than making the jump to Dundee United and competing against the likes of the Celtic first team in the Scottish Premiership.
The colt system seems far more likely to have hindered Robertson, rather than help him. Especially since every article and interview cites his punting by Celtic and rebuild at Queens Park as vital character building.
When it comes to player development, is it not currently the case that some young players, and even the Old Firm themselves, see other clubs as a viable part of the player development journey. Players can look at Robertson and many many others (John McGinn, Robert Snodgrass, James McArthur, James McFadden) and see that you don't need to stay in the youth set-ups of the Big Glasgow Double Act to forge your career. You can learn your apprenticeship in the lower leagues, playing for clubs that are likely to sell you on, or at least unlikely to have the capacity to resist moving you on, up the chain to top flight Scottish clubs. From there, you can go to the Old Firm or even bypass them and straight to England.
Colts strangle this alternative path. The Old Firm will loan out fewer youths, release fewer that are now deemed surplus to requirements (like the aforementioned Scotland captain) and far more exclusively reap the financial rewards of unearthed gems, to the exclusion of other Scottish clubs who they might need to pay transfer fees to for any prospects they'd have the temerity to develop on their lonesome. The ambition for the country’s best will be even more concentrated with Rangers and Celtic than it is already, who can then offer more money and a more tantalising carrot of progression to dangle in front of them.
The result will be an enhanced hoarding of potential talent within the confines of the youth sides of just two clubs. At the moment, they have to loan out their Not-Senior-Squad-Standard-Yet young players. This crucially acts as a pull, redressing some of the imbalance borne from their ability to hoover up the overwhelming majority of that talent. Other clubs gain the advantage of subsidised loan arrangements for underdeveloped prospects that they can help gain valuable experience.
So why not just improve and enhance that system, before trying this Colt thing?
And the Under 21 age limit? At best, you encourage more players to be released in their mid 20s from the Old Firm, as opposed to their late teens. There's no positive in that for the players, but hey, so long as the Old Firm get to be super sure they haven't cut loose any sell-able assets too early, that's the main thing.
And it very much seems to be the real reason they have made this move.
The other argument they supply to disguise it is, you guessed it, the good of the Scotland National Team. That's right; Celtic and Rangers are deeply troubled by the struggles of Scotland in the International side of the sport. The media cheerleaders are quick to point to Spain and Germany and The Netherlands and Portugal as examples of countries where B teams flourish and assist the National sides, whilst failing to mention the more modest international achievements of other nations like Norway and Andorra, who do it as well.
They will point to the high number of their national team players who have strutted their stuff in B teams during their career, but forget to do a like for like comparison with the way things are already. Look at the last Scotland squad and of the 23 players who were stripped, 16 have played lower league football in either Scotland or England. 74%. The idea that prospective Internationals will be better at football by dint of playing in the lower Leagues at some point in their career for Celtic and Rangers, despite the fact that most of our current players have already played at that level at some point in their careers anyway, is at best built on shaky foundations. Does the strip they do it in really make that much of a difference?
But wait! They have colt teams/B teams/youth teams in other countries? Well then, surely we can see that it does work that the crowds come out and the finance does flow like the Spice of Arrakis?
Whilst the likes of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are able to attract upwards of 70,000 fans per week to their Bundesliga matches, their B teams produce far less spectators.
Borussia Dortmund II attracted an average of 2,100 fans throughout the 2016/17 season, while Bayern Munich II recorded an average of just 910.
Barcelona bring in an average of 77,000 each week, while Real Madrid aren’t too far behind with 70,600, which makes them the two most popular clubs in Spain by a long way. Their B teams, on the other hand, attract an average of 1,600 and 980 fans to their home games, which is some way below the average of 4,100 in Spain’s third division. You'll find similarly paltry attendances in Portugal and Italy, too.
Is it possible than that maybe, just maybe, these nations’ football success may have more to do with their superior facilities, their higher number of coaches and many factors besides which help these countries produce fit, strong, smart, technically-gifted footballers in greater number than Scotland does?
It is of course abundantly clear that changes could and should be made to try and improve things across the board, including for the fortunes of the National Team and player development in general. It should be noted, though, that Project Brave is already supposed to be doing this and it's rather early to be expecting it to be producing clear results as yet.
Further changes, though, could be a hell of a lot more innovative and across the board than sneaking Old Firm Colt Teams into the bottom tier. There are multiple options worthy of consideration, yet strangely enough it's only Colt Teams, over and over, rejection after rejection, that gets any attention or any push or even any coverage.
You could try any or some of the following-
-Require every club to register a maximum of 25 players for the league campaign
-Require that no more than 20 of those can be over the age of 23
- Impose a ban on any club signing more than 15 players between the ages of 16 and 23 on a full time contract
- Make it a condition of every player registration that the contract includes a no-fault termination clause able to be exercised by the player if they are under 23 and have not played in a league game that season
Essentially, force clubs to actually play the young players that they sign, whilst also forcing the Old Firm to recruit fewer young players in the first place.
You could be even more radical than that and inform teams that, five years hence, starting 11s or first team squads must include X amount of homegrown players, say, for example, 8 (homegrown as defined as someone trained in Scotland for a minimum 4 years before their 21st birthday/under 21 and set to meet that requirement). You could break it down further and insist that from those 8 players, 5 must have been developed through a clubs own youth academy and at least 3 of the 8 must be under 21.
Surely someone would have thought about trying some or any of those kinds of changes before now, though, right? They did. No less than Craig Brown, the last manager that was able to take Scotland to tournaments, tried to implement a change that would prioritise the development of young players with a knock on effect for the National Team, two of the three laudable motivations that Ant and Dec insist this Colt proposal is all about.
“The SFA had a Football Development Committee when I was with Scotland,” said Brown. “Leading managers, including Jim McLean, sat on it. They wanted suggestions on how to improve our game and I put one forward. France failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1990 and 1994. Then in 1998 they won the World Cup. How did they manage it? One of the things they did was, after Gerard Houllier became their technical director, introduce a rule which banned clubs from having more than 20 players over the age of 20 in their squads. So if they had 30 players 10 of them had to be under 20.
John Collins told me about it. When he was at Monaco and Jean Tigana was the manager they got some injuries and suspensions. They were playing in the Champions League, but, because they were unable to sign anyone, they promoted two youth players. They were Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet. Just 18 months later those two guys were in the French squad which won the World Cup."
Oh. Well what horrible confluence of events conspired to prevent this happening, then? It seemed a great idea. What went wrong?
"But the representatives of both Celtic and Rangers voted against the idea. Eric Black was sent by Celtic with instructions not to vote in favour of it. Bert van Lingen was told by Rangers to do the same. They feared it would put them at a disadvantage in Europe."
Ah. I see. So the twin-pronged strategy to turbocharge the development of young players and improve the standard of the National Team was kibosh-ed, spiked, sabotaged, in the name of Celtic and Rangers suiting themselves?
“Bert said: ‘If we play, say, a German team with 30 players over the age of 20 were are at a disadvantage’. I told him: ‘But a couple of seasons ago you lost home and away to Auxerre in the Champions League and they are working to that rule! And you’re telling us that you can’t work to that!’ Bobby Williamson said: ‘I’ve been doing that as it is’. He had Scott Brown, Kevin Thomson, Derek Riordan, Gary O’Connor, Steven Whittaker, in his side. Anyway, it didn’t get approved. Jim McLean resigned after that. He said: ‘Och, I’m not coming back!’
“It was a constructive idea to restrict the number of foreign players coming in and force clubs to field younger players. We even said we could start it off at 23 players over 20 and reduce it gradually. But it was rejected.”
Well I never. That list of Hibs players Bobby Williamson was bringing through? They all eventually joined one or the other half of the Old Firm, apart from Gary O'Connor, who was sold for nearly £2 million to Lokomotiv Moscow. They all became internationals, too.
Us Lower League fans, then, us Scotland fans, will surely be forgiven for smelling a rat in this Colt Proposal from the teams we often refer to as The Cheeks. Thankfully, it appears that the conference call on Monday 10th of June put the Colt Team suggestion back in it's box, at least for another year.
Alas, it seems certain to be back soon, one would imagine at the earliest opportunity. The Old Firm seem to have been preparing the ground for it. They likely knew they couldn't get it across the line for the start of this impending season, but watch them try and push it throughout as a long term solution, either season 2021/2022 or the one after. Note the lower league chairmen being lured, tempted, seduced by the offers of money, by the promises of income.
After-all, the financial argument is the only one that bears any real scrutiny. The only argument against it, indeed, is the moral one. The idea is quite evidently being proposed over and over by two particular clubs because they believe it to be in their own interests, regardless of Covid-19. On that basis, there is literally no better word for the financial offers being made than bribery.
Colt teams in the lower leagues diminishes, demeans and devalues the competitions, competitions which are already treated with contempt by many in the world of Scottish football. It is not the job of the lower leagues to develop the young players of Celtic and Rangers. These are leagues in their own right, full of teams with histories long and short, glorious and modest, but truly, entirely their own. It would be a move in direct defiance of the supporters who actually do give a damn about them, with a recent Sons Supporters Trust (Dumbarton) statement eloquently emblematic of the widespread sentiment of lower league football fans who have consistently railed against this every time it has come up;
"In a consultation conducted in 2018, 89% of Trust members voted against the idea of having Colt teams play in our lower leagues, and it is also the unanimous position of the Sonstrust Board. We would therefore firmly oppose any league reconstruction proposals which introduced colt teams into the bottom tier.
We believe the democratic principle of ‘one club, one team’ should be upheld, and to see the lower tier devalued into little more than a development league for the top two sides in Scotland to test their youth against is something we could not support under any circumstances. This opportunistic attempt to use the crisis in Scottish football to shoehorn their development sides into the lower leagues, with the promises of guaranteed ticket sales and joining fees should be recognised as no more than a bribe – one that compromises the integrity of the competition. We believe that whatever financial benefit can be obtained by admitting colt teams into the league will be outweighed by the loss of revenue and goodwill from our supporters who overwhelmingly oppose the idea. The low attendances and boycotts at Challenge Cup fixtures involving colt teams both at The Rock and at many other grounds across Scotland show that there is little appetite to see the introduction of colt teams into the league.
The Sonstrust will therefore be making firm representations to the Club in opposition to any reconstruction proposal involving colt teams being introduced into the league setup. No matter the financial gain, the Club should not sells its soul by voting for such a proposal and risk antagonising its supporters who have been incredibly generous to the club over the past few months, rallying around and contributing financially to help ensure the future of our club.
The Old firm will come again, of that there can be little doubt, with pieces of silver and promises of jam tomorrow. That they have sough to use a global pandemic and the existential threat it poses to the most financially vulnerable part of Scottish Football to try and get their way is nothing short of craven, parasitical and vampiric.
Their opportunistic, lip licking manoeuvre is typical of their natural cabal, and one that will need vigilant and concerted opposition to combat.