Whether top flight teams in Scotland should be allowed to play their colt teams in the lower tiers of the SPFL is the very emotive question that has intensified in recent weeks. Christian Wulff has spoken to two Norwegian football experts to see how a similar system has worked there and what their recommendation for football in Scotland would be.
It’s the topic that won’t go away. The admission of colt teams into the Scottish league structure seem to have an inevitability about it, something so far along the path that the best option for those that don’t want them in the league might be to allow them entrance fir now; stop the fight to refuse them access, then start the fight of kicking them out.
It’s easier said than done of course: the proposed admission of Celtic and Ranger’s colt teams for a trial period of two years would be a watershed moment in Scottish football. That’s why the fight seem so intense and often without nuance. Oddly enough, the intensity of the fight is almost solely made up by the detractors; railing against the perceived injustice of the two biggest clubs in Scotland bulldozing over tradition and even the very essence and purpose of lower league teams. The opposing side is a lot more subtle, almost treading on eggshells in public to avoid attracting more anger, instead wielding their substantial influence behind the scenes.
Perhaps lost in battle is the fact that is that this topic is an almost entirely uncontroversial in most other European leagues. While there are different rules and regulations the principle is the same; your second string (or even third and fourth) team is allowed to compete in the senior league system.
This also applies to the country that in terms of population, quality and climate perhaps resembles Scotland the closest when it comes to football; Norway. Since 1990 all clubs in the country have been allowed to enter more than one senior team into the league system. The main criteria is that there must be at least one tier between any two teams from the same club, making the third tier the highest ceiling for a ‘reserve’ team.
The other main difference with the Scottish league system is Norway’s degree of regionalisation. While the two top tiers consist of one division each with 16 teams, the third level has just recently gone from four different divisions down to two, with 14 teams in each. The fourth tier has six divisions with 14 teams, all divided – as much as possible in such a big country – on regional basis. The fourth tier is the last tier that is formally governed by the national football association, with lower tiers organised and regulated by the 18 different ‘football municipalities’, some who have a league set-up all the way down to the 10th tier.
While the explanation is dry and technical, the point is important; Norway have 116 teams in their top four tiers, Scotland have 42. The presence of three reserve teams (from Odd, Vålerenga and Stabæk) in the third tier (out of 28) and 13 in the fourth (out of 84) somehow seems like less of an ‘intrusion’ into the league, even if percentage wise its a bigger presence than two colt teams in the Scottish league would be.
But after almost three decades what has this system meant for Norwegian football, its top clubs and player development and the smaller clubs and their place within the footballing landscape? What can Scotland learn from the Norwegian experience and if advising a country on the brink of making a fundamental decision about its football structure, would the recommendation be to embrace it or avoid it?
Lars Tjærnås has been a major presence in Norwegian football from the introduction of the reserve team structure in 1990. Outside of Norway he’s probably best known for being the assistant manager to Egil Olsen during his (almost) season-long reign at Wimbledon. He’s managed several Norwegian club teams – most notably Vålerenga – and also been in charge of Norwegian national teams in different age groups. He’s a football commentator and broadcaster, in addition to having worked within player development, analysis and scouting for several clubs. His latest assignment is as a part of Ronny Deila’s team at Vålerenga, primarily as a scout.
From his position and involvement in top-flight clubs, he is clear that the advantages outweigh the potential issues, especially when it comes to the development of young players
‘The main thing is that young players get to play games that really mean something, which I think is an underrated part of player development. To really feel the competiveness on a pitch where getting 3, 1 or 0 points has a real consequence focuses the mind. Another great advantage is the logistics; with a set match day (Mondays) you can more easily plan a training week and you get a nice “game rhythm” throughout the season.
For the bigger clubs, having the possibility to offer a variety of game opportunities– such as reserve teams in the senior league and elite U-19 leagues – is often a deciding factor in convincing younger talents to join the club, and it also makes it a lot easier to give players the right level of game matching depending on what stage in their development they are at.’
While Tjærnås has spent most of his football life with clubs on the top level of Norwegian football, his son, Jørgen, is probably one of the most notable voices when it comes to lower league football in Norway. As a journalist, his main area of interest and expertise is from the third tier and down – it’s an immense task, with the fifth tier alone consisting of over 300 teams.
He agrees that for the top flight clubs and for the development of players in Norway, being allowed to enter reserve teams in the league structure has been overwhelmingly positive;
‘You only need to look at some of the players who have broken through in the league the last few years in Norway; Iver Fossum (at Strømsgodset, now Hannover 96), Ghayas Zahid (at Vålerenga, now APOEL) and Fredrik Midtsjø (at Rosenborg, now AZ) is just some of the young players who get invaluable experience from playing for the reserve teams. Previously, young players stayed with their first senior club in Norway a lot longer and would have the time to gradually get used to the level needed. Today, when they come to these clubs when they are 15 or 16, they need a way to get used to senior football a lot sooner. Playing for the reserve teams in the lower tiers prepare them for that first team action so much quicker.
To give you an idea about the comparative quality between young players in the top clubs and clubs lower down the leagues; this month Stabæk’s U-16 team beat Hallingdal (who finished third in their fifth tier division in 2017) 5-2 in a friendly. There is a lot of very good young players in the top flight clubs and if they are going to develop they need to play against adults, not just players of the same age’
While the advantages in letting young players test themselves in competitive league games on a senior level might be undeniable, opponents of colt teams in Scotland has argued that this is can just as easily be achieved through players being loaned out to other clubs in the lower leagues.
In principle, it’s something Jørgen Tjærnås think would be a good alternative to the current system in Norway;
‘A better loan model where players could be loaned out to third tier clubs for a month or two would be a good option in my view, but that would be difficult to achieve within the FIFA rules. ‘
While both agree that the bigger clubs in Norway gain a lot from the colt team solution, Jørgen explains that for the smaller clubs it’s definitely not all positive. One major issue is that in Norway there are no set squads for the first and second teams and they can move freely between the teams at any point.
‘The most frustrating thing for the lower league clubs is the inconsistency in who plays for the reserve teams. One week it’s a team filled with 17-year-olds, then the next there is 7-8 full-time professionals playing. One club may use young players through the whole spring season, and then if they are close to relegation they often throw a lot of seasoned players in for 6-7 games in the autumn to make sure they don’t go down. Had the rules been clearer or the bigger club acting more fairly in terms of their line-ups, it wouldn’t have been seen as a problem’
Such inconsistency in player selection will obviously be seen as unfair for teams that face a strengthened reserve team, something that SFA’s stipulations of a set squad between transfer windows would go some way to mitigate in the proposed Scottish scenario. For Jørgen, such clear rules on player selection would be the most important advice for the potential implementation of colt teams in the Scottish league.
Jørgen also points out that there are some positive sides for the lower league clubs in Norway, especially the ones competing in regions where the geographical distances between clubs competing in the higher tiers can be very large.
‘From the fifth tier and down the reserve teams are probably seen as less of a nuisance, especially in some parts of the country. If these were outside the league system, the distances they would have to travel (especially for the reserves of clubs in the second and third tier) to meet another reserve team would be huge – it’s better that they can stay locally and play smaller league clubs from the same region’
The smaller league clubs would get the same benefit, more clubs locally – even if it is the second or even third string team of one of the bigger clubs – potentially mean less travel, which again reduces the time and cost pressure on players and clubs in the lower tiers.
While there are some such positives for clubs far down the league system, Jørgen think the clubs higher up would rather see the back of the reserve teams in their league.
‘If you asked the teams on the third and fourth tier I reckon most of them would want to take the reserves them out of the league structure if they had the choice, precisely because they’re so erratic in team selection. There is not really any boost in terms of attendances either if, especially as reserve games are almost always played on a Monday. You do have the prospect of a club’s own talents getting the opportunity to face players of a similar age group from one of the bigger teams and see how they measure up, but I think that’s the only slightly positive thing from their point of view.’
Having worked a year within British football and being a keen follower of it, Lars Tjærnås understands why there is so much reluctance to admitting the bigger club’s colt or reserve teams into the league structure;
‘I think tradition stands in the way, especially since historically there are so many bigger teams – if all of them wanted to put a reserve team in it’ll stunt the development of so many smaller clubs. A reserve team can quite simple block the progress of smaller, ambitious clubs to progress up the league. And in a lot of ways, Great Britain is a conservative country who is often sceptical to new ideas’
Overall, Jørgen understands why top flight clubs in Scotland would be interested in entering colt teams within the league structure, especially because of the player development opportunities, but he is wary;
‘I don’t know the loan system in Scotland well enough but if possible, why not let the best young players go out on loan to clubs close by that plays in second or third tier? If you let two bigger teams have a reserve team in the league, what happens if another three – or more – demands a place?’
For his father Lars, the answer to whether he would recommend letting colt clubs into the league system in Scotland is very balanced;
‘From the point of view of the big clubs; absolutely. For the smaller club; no. For the best young talent; yes. For most other players in the lower leagues; no. It’s not a case of there being just positives or just negatives. It’s a double-edged sword’