KEEPING SOMETHING IN RESERVE
Radio Scotland’s “Sportsound” must be eternally grateful for the weekly shenanigans surrounding the future of the SPFL structure. It’s a mathematician’s dream as they experts debate the merits and demerits of every combination of 10s, 14s and now 18s- as long as it seems to add up to 42. Meanwhile the clock ticks down to the start of a new season, whenever that may be. A lot of steam has been generated about the proposals for the introduction of the Old Firm Colts/B Team/Reserves to the bottom tier. Like a lot of proposals, there are good arguments (for and against) surrounding this idea. It is interesting to look at the various structures that have existed in the history of the game since the outbreak of the war in 1939.
On the eve of hostilities, we had the two divisions, the first with 20 teams and the second with 18. In the last full season, 1938/39, Falkirk had finished fifth top of the topflight- a mere three points behind Celtic who were runners-up. In the second tier, you had teams like Dundee and Dundee United. The leagues reflected the industrial base of Scotland at the time and attendances were healthy. Then came the war- and the football world stopped- albeit briefly. Emergency measures were needed and here’s where there might be an interesting precedent. Like the current crisis, nobody knew how long the disruption would last, and those running the game introduced regional leagues to cut down on travel and expense, but at the same time recognise the positive effect on morale of staging competitive football. A North-East league consisted of 16 teams and Falkirk were the eventual winners. Rangers won the South-West league.
After the war, some elements of the Regional Leagues were retained and a three- league structure was introduced for 1946/47 season. In the third tier of 10 teams there were Reserve teams from Dundee, Dundee United and St.Johnstone. Many regard the following season, 1947/48 as the first “normal” season after the war and a three-league structure of 16-16- 12 was the chosen format. The ‘Shire won the C Division title and the league contained several Reserve sides- notably those of East Fife, Kilmarnock, St.Johnstone, Dundee United, Arbroath, Leith Athletic and Raith Rovers. Not every club was able to sustain the commitment of fielding two teams on a Saturday, but others were keen to take their place. By 1949/50 the war-time regionalisation was reintroduced and there was a Division C North-East and a Division C South-West. Falkirk entered a team in Division C South-West and finished fourth. Ironically, The ‘Shire played in Division C North-East as the geographical fault line for Scotland clearly ran along Graham’s Road, Falkirk. So, we had a four- league format- with an 18- team bottom tier. The balance was restored to four leagues of 16 the following season and Falkirk fielded two sides every Saturday.
Going to see the Reserves was enjoyable for many in those days when few people had private cars and places like Aberdeen were seen as a long journey. There was much more room to stand wherever you liked—(Social Distancing 1950s style) and the games still had all the trappings of the real thing. Pies and Bovril were available, there was a programme to collect and you got to collect some famous autographs by waiting outside the main entrance without being moved on by the commissionaire. The Reserve teams often had famous players making a comeback from injury or after a loss of form, and I can well remember seeing some famous Celtic, Hearts, Hibs and Aberdeen stars in these matches. The team had various names such as the Second Team, the B Team, the Reserves- but never the Colts. The sides were a mixture of fringe players, returning stars, promising youngsters (some still at school) as well as the traditional Newman, Junior and Trialist. There was no quarter asked or given and many a young player learned more in one of the games than a season of playing against his peer group. There was no notion of an “Academy”, but they learned at another establishment- The School of Hard Knocks. Rangers and Celtic Reserves were in these Divisions C, but predictably were kept apart- just like Falkirk and The ‘Shire.
The structure was abandoned in 1955/56 season with the Scottish Reserve League taking the place of Division C. The teams promoted to the new Division B were Berwick The ‘Shire, Montrose, Dumbarton and Stranraer. Something was lost by this decision and the various attempts to find an ideal league format have failed to come up with a solution. Reserve games are soul-less affairs with no atmosphere, no motivation for players and no real sense of a competitive edge. You can hear every word spoken, unfortunately, every instruction from the bench, every clattering tackle, and every noise of the studs as players have to retrieve the ball from empty stands. No wonder the name “The Stiffs” has found its way into the football vocabulary. Similarly, youth games- even at International level, fail to attract the supporters. How many of the crowd at these games are friends, families or relatives or maybe scouts on the look-out for promising talent? There is little doubt that Scottish Football needs change but there is no need to discount proposals without due consideration.
The Old Firm have not been known for their ability to develop young Scottish talent in recent years and other clubs have furthered the careers of their young players such as Rory Loy, Murray Wallace, and Zak Rudden at Falkirk. What would their age-restricted Colts bring to the proposed Division 3? Their performance in the Challenge Cup would suggest that there is a huge gap between youth and senior football. Maybe we are at a stage where we need to consider which clubs can play to certain standards in the current and future contexts of the post-pandemic game. Gordon Strachan was hammered in certain quarters when he suggested that a radical pruning was needed based on professional standards. The SFA is supposed to be able to set standards for certification as a viable club.
Big questions need to be asked. Do you want to continue as a professional club? Can you meet a whole new set of criteria? The irony is that some of the “wee clubs” could easily meet Social Distancing regulations, with or without masks, while some big clubs might face insurmountable challenges. Who can afford twice- weekly testing, policing, stewarding, personal protective equipment and redesigning the dressing-rooms to meet new standards? When Michael O’Neil outlined the costs of testing at Stoke City, many chairmen must have thought their finances couldn’t cope. Is Saturday still going to be the traditional football day if many of the population will be working from home in increasing numbers- and any day is a possible football day? Will travel restrictions play into the hands of the TV companies and a pay-as-you-go bonanza arises with a game every hour, on the hour, with ad breaks coinciding with stoppages for water intake and the periodic disinfecting of the ball?
The game is at a crossroads and the predicted “tsunami” might be closer than some of the blazers realise. My own view is that we need to get this right. There is a total absence of vision at the very top and it’s being left to the likes of Ann Budge, Gordon Strachan, assorted chairmen, pundits and journalists to come up with variations on a theme. Maybe we cannot sustain 42 senior clubs- not to mention the Highland and Lowland Leagues- but if ever Scottish Football needed a clear way ahead it is now. Would an American-style format be possible with 4 Regionalised Conferences and with a draft system, no relegation and shared income from merchandising? Are mergers possible? Probably not, given that the game is founded on tribalism, loyalty, heritage, and community.
Maybe lessons need to be learned from the past. We shouldn’t dismiss any new proposals without thinking them through. We don’t need any more think-tanks, government reports, committees or working parties.We don’t want future generations to be asking their parents the inevitable question, “Why did Scottish Football decline so badly after the Coronavirus Crisis of 2020?”
* The views in this article do not necessarily represent those of Falkirk FC