Does Scotland Need a Reserve League to Develop Young Talent?
Written by: Matt Rhein @thebackpassrule
Despite the regular season being a few weeks away, the Scottish football headline season is already in full swing. We have had European qualifying and League Cup group stage play on the pitch, as well as transfers, ineligible players, an SPFL board shake-up and more off it. One headline from the preseason was the return of the Reserve League to Scotland.
Two reserve leagues will be replacing the development leagues that were in place the last few seasons. The SPFL has made this move in hopes of improving the development of younger SPFL players, saying they are "of the view that it would benefit the development of young players if they were playing alongside more experienced players on a more regular basis." However, the only restriction on player participation will be that the minimum age is 16.
Developing young talent is a hot topic across the world of football. Every country is looking for the secret sauce to bring through the next "golden generation". With the re-introduction of the reserve league, the SPFL seems to be trying to do that as well. Questions need to be asked about it having any positive effect on youth development in Scotland though. Furthermore, does a reserve league even need to be introduced to get young players playing time against more experienced players? The data says no.
When we look at the age break-down of players who appeared in the SPFL Premiership last season, we see that nearly 40% of the players were under 23 in Scotland's top flight. In terms of minutes played in the league, over 27% of the total minutes available in the SPFL Premiership were played by players under 23. The SPFL Premiership also had 46 U23 players play at least 1,000 minutes of league play last season, which is 12.6% of all players that appeared in the SPFL.
As mentioned earlier, the desire to develop young talent is a goal of most leagues across the world. The above numbers detailing the playing time for players in the SPFL under the age of 23 seem impressive, but how do they compare to similar leagues? First, let us look at the country that can't stop taking pot shots at Scottish Football. It probably is not an apt comparison to compare the SPFL to the EPL, but the English Championship might be a better comparison.
When looking at how the SPFL compares at getting U23 players playing time compared to the Championship, we see it did a better job last season at giving young players first team minutes. Only 28.83% of players in the English Championship were under the age of 23 last season. Furthermore, only 19.48% of the total minutes played in the Championship were played by U23. 80 Under-23 players played at least 1,000 minutes, which is 11.03% of all players in the Championship.
Not only did Scotland offer more opportunities for young players to get on the pitch than the English Championship, but they have also done so consistently the last few years. In 2016-2017, 39.6% of players in the SPFL were U23 and they accounted for 25.13% of minutes played. Similar numbers were seen in the SPFL in 2015-2016, where 40.06% of players were U23 and they played 26.41% of the minutes available.
Outwith one or two clubs, most SPFL clubs cannot compete financially with an English Championship club. If an SPFL club and Championship club are both after a young player, the Championship club can most likely offer a financial package the Scottish club cannot match. Yet, the Scottish club in this scenario can point to the trend in the SPFL giving young players an opportunity to play in the first team. The high stakes world of trying to win promotion to the billions found in the EPL does not allow for a lot of leeway in the Championship. A young player who heads to the Championship may soon find himself on the bench after a bit of bad form, never to return to the pitch. These numbers show that is not necessarily the case in Scotland.
So we see that younger players get plenty of opportunities to play first team football in the SPFL, but which teams are giving young players the most time and which are giving them the least? We see in the table above that last season Kilmarnock's impressive run to a 5th place finish was guided by a young core. 36.68% of the total minutes played for Steve Clarke's squad were given to U23 players, the highest in the SPFL Premiership. With key young players such as Greg Taylor, Stuart Findlay, Jordan Jones, and Eamonn Brophy getting over 1,300 minutes, the Killie team seems like it has a young core in place to have sustained success.
Celtic have the second highest % of minutes going to U23 players at 36.36%. When we compare Celtic's overall number to the % of minutes going to Scottish U23 players though, we see a much lower total at 10.61%. We see a similar story with their Glasgow rivals Rangers, who gave 27.11% of minutes to U23's, but only 9.98% were Scottish.
On the other end of this table, we see Ross County gave the fewest percentage of U23 minutes out at 15.36%. The club obviously had a rough season, getting relegated and having 3 management regimes through the year. However, there has been a lot of talk about Ross County's youth set up after they won the Development League but the various first team management squad seemed hesitant to rely on them.
Aberdeen and Hibernian gave U23's the second and third lowest minutes in the first team last season, at a near identical 20.54% and 20.59%. This is not a total surprise given the managers involved, though at Pittodrie Scott McKenna was clearly ready to take that step up and made up a large chunk of the U23 minutes for Aberdeen.
These numbers above clearly indicate that young players are already getting a chance to play against "more experienced players" without a reserve league in Scotland. The idea to bring back the reserve league most likely has good intentions, trying to improve young players in the SPFL by going back to something the league did nearly 10 years ago. Yet a simple look at this type of data could have informed the SPFL that it is not something that is needed and that the set up the last few seasons has afforded these young players first team opportunities