Rumours of Reserve League returning as Lowland League set to reject ultimatum

Celtic’s B-Team plans for next season appear in a state of flux after the club reportedly issued an ultimatum to the lowland League, after Hearts late in the day application to join the lowland league was rejected.

It’s either Celtic, Hearts and theRangers or it’s nothing at all seemed to be the message. It’s one which has apparently been heard loud and clear as the Lowland league understandably hasn’t taken too kindly to threats – and on D-Day, 6 June is likely to vote to return to a 16-team league leaving all three clubs on the outside looking in.

There are rumours of a return of a reserve team league next season with Hibs Development boss Steve Kean quoted in Edinburgh Evening News as saying this.

“We’ve been in talks with the SPFL and SFA – there is a possibility that there will be a new reserve league format that we would support and be interested in.

“We would supplement that with playing games against teams from England that would really push our players in a different direction. Sometimes when we play teams here, everybody knows everybody else; the players know all the other players in the other team.”

The reserve League has been lost since 2018/19 after clubs only played each other once, giving a total fixture list of 17 games. It would be a sticking plaster approach to an issue Celtic need to address quickly, but long term is it really the answer? Perhaps it’s time we looked to a more radical approach and one taken by a club who faced similar problems to Celtic in terms of competitive action or players but also in the way their young talent was beginning poached by wealthy EPL sides.

In May 2016 West London club Brentford disbanded their Academy system. This involved withdrawing from the Elite Player Performance Plan and Professional Development League system, as well as ending their full academy system from under-eight through to under-21s. The final decision was taken on the back of losing young talent for next to no compensation as Ian Carlo Poveda headed to Manchester City and Josh Bohui to Manchester United.

In its place Brentford transferred their funds, vision and expertise into expanding their scouting and analytics teams and focussed solely on a Brentford B team, a team made up at the time of the left-over gems of the abandoned Academy alongside young identified talent from undervalued markets such as Iceland, Denmark and Finland, plus young recruits who couldn’t see a footballing pathway from Manchester City, Brighton, Chelsea and even Celtic. These lads formed what predominately equated to an under-21 side.

It was a brave decision and one taken with one eye on the future. Brentford are surrounded by wealthy London clubs, with Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal already poaching and then stockpiling the talents of the capital’s young hopefuls the Bees soon found the likes of Man City and Man United following suit. As such a realisation dawned that with little financial recompense coming their way, allied to how few numbers actually make the grade, it was no longer as cost effective as first thought to have a football academy, not when they could box a little more cleverly. The new system runs at an annual cost of £1million, whereby the previous Academy system was operating at a cost of double that so the financial advantages were clear from the beginning.

There was also the initial challenge, having left the Academy system and therefore their attached league and cup system, as to how the B team would be able to play enough matches to ensure pathway plans could be realised.

If anything, Brentford improved their lot in that regard as they regularly play (other than during covid restrictions) twice a week via a mix of non-league English sides, both Senior and Junior cup competitions as well as travelling to play and inviting teams such as Bayern Munich, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Porto, Benfica and Premier League giants Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City to play at their Isleworth, Jersey Road facility.

These are not just games Brentford B have taken on, all have sides, either youth or B teams who have been beaten by Brentford B. They have also played both Celtic and theRangers. In theory it remains an Academy but simply one for the best for 17, 18, 19 and 20-year-olds and all play for one team. It allows all resources are put into this and the supporting technology – something club owner Matthew Benham has implemented at every level of Brentford FC.

There are clear parallels with Celtic’s current predicament and that of Brentford when they decided to call time on the Academy. Celtic are regularly haemorrhaging youth talent. Liam Morrison and Barry Hepburn to Bayern Munich, Josh Adam to Manchester City and Liam Hughes and Ben Doak to Liverpool all within the couple of years, and even the status of having the legendary Davie Hay as your grandfather didn’t stop the likes of AC Milan and Manchester Utd targeting young ‘keeper Vincent Angelini before he was poached by Watford.

Some of that may well be down to the inner workings of the club itself perhaps, like many departments at Celtic, being in need of modernising, but it also doesn’t help when the big-league boys scouting and analysts recognise the talent available more easily by simply viewing recordings of youth player matches on scouting platforms, as with the click of a mouse as they look to mine the best of young talent before they become pricey. Whilst even those who won’t make it to the first team become almost farmed through a series of loan moves before often moving on for substantial transfer fees often without even playing a first team game for their club.

Yet some of those players at those clubs who stockpile those young talents also get frustrated and that is also an area Brentford have spotted as an opportunity where they can focus in on, regularly holding trials for young players discarded by other Academy sides and cherry picking those they feel were either overlooked, or targeting those looking for a way out – with Celtic’s interest in picking up young talent down south, is that perhaps an avenue Celtic too could explore?

A first team squad of two players for every position supplemented by an ability to call on the same from a young B squad may well be something that not only supplies the necessary depth for the manager of the first team but also allows every single player at the club to see a pathway and opportunity at first team level – a lack of which those who have moved on from Celtic at a young age have signified as a key reason for doing so – and with the Lowland League closing the door on competitive football for Celtic’s youngsters and the reserve league option a return to a failed approach, perhaps this is an approach that could work at Celtic.

it is also a system that needn’t be exclusive to the players themselves. Brentford also use the B team to gain experience for coaches expected to make the move to first team level as and when vacancies become available. As evidenced when Kevin O’Connor, a club legend as a player, was promoted from B team boss to first-team assistant to Thomas Frank who himself was an internal appointment after previous boss Dean Smith was poached by boyhood club Aston Villa. Frank the took Brentford to the EPL and in his debut season finished in 13th place with the lowest budget in the division and one of the smallest first team squads – supplemented of course by the B-Team.

A direct replica of Brentford’s approach is unlikely to fit the bill for Celtic but something similar whereby Celtic negate the need for quite so many levels of youth footballers only to see the larger English and indeed European clubs take them away at 16 years of age, for a pittance and after investing so much in their development, may be something Celtic could look at.

The B team approach would certainly offer opportunities for young talent to play games beyond the confines of Scotland and allow funds saved to be focussed on modernising and expanding the scouting and analysis side of the club rather than the cost of overseeing a coaching system spread across so many youth levels and partnerships. It is a streamlined and proven to be effective system from a club, much like Celtic who were and are dwarfed financially by Premier league English clubs.

It would be far from an easy decision to make and even if taken it brings no guarantee of the same success the system has had at Brentford. But what has become evident at Celtic in recent years is the club’s young talent is being denied to us as larger clubs with bigger budgets try to poach young talent early thus denying Celtic the talent and limiting the financial compensation.

And now we are looking as if we are back to square one, if as expected the Lowland League experiment is disbanded. Are the likes of Bosun Lawal, Tobi Oluwayemi and Ben Summers going to be satisfied with reserve team football? Will the club be able to source alternative and suitable loan deals instead? Just where will the pathway plan emerge that the club have been selling to these players?

It all looks a little bit like history repeating, yet In West London there may be proven example Celtic could follow.

Niall J


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As a Bellshill Bhoy I was taken to my first Celtic game in the summer of 1987. It was Billy McNeill’s return to Celtic Park as manager and Celtic lost 5-1 to Arsenal . I thought I was a jinx, I think my Grandfather might have thought the same. It was the finest gift anyone ever gave me when he walked me through Parkhead's gates.

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