Celtic and Rangers affected as SFA pulls plug on Conference League plan

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Motion withdrawn less than 24 hours before vote at SFA AGM

The Scottish FA has pulled the plug on plans for a new Scottish Conference League – less than 24 hours before members clubs were due to vote on the controversial proposal at its AGM.

The governing body has withdrawn a resolution to establish the new league at tier five of the pyramid, concluding that “it would like to carry out further consultation in respect of the player pathway to ensure the best development opportunities for Scottish players within the football pyramid”.

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SFA chief executive Ian Maxwell had made a last-ditch appeal over the weekend to rally support for his proposal to elevate Rangers, Celtic and Hearts B teams up the pyramid. But it came after across the country had publicly declared that they would be voting against. With the vote doomed to fail, the SFA has now decided to think again.

The proposal to introduce the new 10-team league at tier five of the pyramid was due to be voted on my long-standing member clubs and affiliate associations at the Scottish FA AGM. But with 45 of the 92 clubs having already publicly declared their intention to reject the plan, 53 votes in favour required, and no clubs coming out in favour, it was not expected to pass.

Clubs currently in the fifth tier and below have objected to a new league being inserted above them, many describing it as relegation for more than 200 clubs in the pyramid. Maxwell, however, had hoped the larger entry fee – £100,000 rather than the current £40,000 fee for the Lowland League – would have proved persuasive, especially to League Two clubs who fear relegation.

Andy Smith, chair at the Scottish Football Supporters Association, said: “Fans know that Scottish football needs change and changes and are happy to help, but we need to have a plan and a programme and that starts with asking the right questions, not the usual railroading nonsense. We need some bigger thinking and football needs to realise that common good will always out trump self interest.”

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The Conference League plan, backed by SPFL chief Neil Doncaster as well as Maxwell, was for Celtic, Rangers, Hearts and one one other B team made up of under-20 players to pay an annual entry fee and join four Lowland League and two Highland League clubs in a new national league which would sit directly beneath SPFL League 2, but above the Lowland and Highland League. The four B teams would have been ineligible for promotion or relegation initially, but the long-term intention was to enable them to move up as high as League One.

The SFA was proposing for the Conference League to come into being from season 2024-25. It would have been a separate entity to the SPFL and funded by the four Premiership clubs paying £100,000 each to be involved as B teams.

Celtic, Rangers and Hearts already pay £40,000 a year to field their B teams play as ‘guests’ in the Lowland League, an arrangement that will continue next season, but Maxwell wants them higher up the pyramid to help produce better young players for the Scotland national team and cites examples from European leagues abroad.

Maxwell believes statistics show Scottish football is producing talented players at a young age but says their progress stalls as they near their twenties. He explained: “Our Under-17s were over in Hungary after qualifying again for the Euros finals and we have done that consistently at that age. At 19s, we get to the elite round but don’t get through to the finals consistently.

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“At 21s, the performances have deteriorated over a period of time. We’re now a Pot D team and we’re finishing third, fourth or fifth and haven’t been anywhere close to an Under-21s finals in a while.

“So that highlights there is a problem with the pathway. People will say, ‘Aye but it’s only the clubs at the top of the pyramid who can afford B team football’. They’re right. It is only the clubs at the top who can afford it. But we need to look at the ones further down and say, ‘How do we make sure that the loan options available to them are as good as they can be? What else can we do that solves the problem for as many clubs as possible?’.”

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