WHAT were the highlights in the UK Government’s recent “budget for growth”? Was it Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s commitment to free childcare to help families back to work? Was it the attempts to encourage 50-somethings not to hang up the work boots just yet?

The latter resonates with the job Ange Postecoglou has done on revitalising the career of Aaron Mooy at Celtic. The Australian midfielder was a free agent after leaving Shanghai Port last year but his former national team manager knew there was plenty left in the old dog yet, and so it has proved, with the 32-year-old showing no signs of slowing up as one of the stand-out performers in the Scottish champions’ march towards retaining their title.

But has Postecoglou shown as much commitment to youth in his current set-up? So far this season, not one Scottish player aged 21 or under has started a Premiership match for the Parkhead side. Is this a failing of the Celtic manager? Or could it be a consequence of the current SPFL rules?

You may recall, if you haven’t erased the period from your memory by now, that when the pandemic struck in 2020 and lockdown curtailed sporting calendars everywhere, the SPFL engaged in a prolonged period of navel-gazing. Suggestions like getting rid of the Premiership split and increasing the league from 12 to 18 teams were bandied about. One rule which was brought in and has stuck around is the increase from three to five permitted substitutions.

The gap to Celtic and Rangers this season is pronounced. With both clubs receiving Champions League group-stage money, that chasm is only going to grow. Take a look at Celtic’s bench, in particular, and you already have a sense of where this money is going. This is why I am wary of an increase in the top division from 12 to 18 teams. The argument is that this would provide the chance for sides outside Glasgow’s big two to rack up more points, with fewer morale-sapping defeats at Celtic Park and Ibrox to contend with.

But consider for a moment who Celtic and Rangers are most likely to drop points against; that’s right: one another. For the likes of Hearts, Hibernian and Aberdeen, four fewer games each against the Old Firm could provide a points net gain; however, the Old Firm ought to increase the gap in this scenario. Take this season as a case in point: Celtic have only dropped five points in 28 games so far – two of those were against Rangers (40 per cent). Their city rivals, meanwhile, have let 14 points slip – five of those against the league champions (over 35 per cent). Reduce the number of times they face off, reduce the points dropped over the course of the season.

As ever, it’s the number that follows the £-sign that really counts, not the number of teams occupying the fixture list. But does Celtic and Rangers raking in Champions League money, which filters down the SPFL pyramid, deliver for the Scottish game, when it’s used to bolster squads already teeming with talent? One meaningful change that could be made to address the gap, especially to Celtic, is to reduce the number of permitted substitutions back to pre-pandemic levels.

Just look at the Parkhead side’s bench in their most recent Premiership match, the 3-1 victory over Hearts at Celtic Park: Alistair Johnston, Sead Haksabanovic, David Turnbull, Jota, Yuki Kobayashi, Oh Hyeon-gyu, Tomoki Iwata, Scott Bain and Reo Hatate. The ability to bring five of that contingent on to replenish an already superior side to their opponents is verging on ridiculous. One of them, Haksabanovic, providing the killer third goal against Hearts only illustrates the point.

This squad depth has been a common theme in Postecoglou’s side’s success this term. In their previous league fixture, another comeback victory against St Mirren, three of the substitutes coming on, Liel Abada, Oh and Matt O’Riley, all scored in the 5-1 win. In the game before that, a 4-0 win over Aberdeen, Abada scored off the bench again. Before that, a 4-1 win at St Johnstone, Turnbull netted after coming on. It’s been a prevalent theme all year.

This system allows the Greek-Australian to keep his embarrassment of riches happy with minutes under their belts and goals and assists to add to their stat charts. But would the likes of Abada, O’Riley and Haksabanovic be quite as willing to stick around if they were consigned to watching the entire match from the sidelines? Even with the smattering of appearances from the bench to replace first-choice striker Kyogo Furuhashi, Giorgos Giakoumakis decided to up sticks for MLS when it was clear he was always going to be playing second fiddle to the Japanese.

Another startling point about those names occupying the subs’ bench is how few are coming from the club’s youth academy. At present, Postecoglou is populating his bench with essentially first-team players. There is not much room afforded to blooding youngsters in this system and, with the exception of Turnbull and Greg Taylor, how many of them are products of the domestic league setting? In their latest league outing, only Anthony Ralston and Callum McGregor had come through the youth ranks at the club out of the 20-man match-day squad, and only Turnbull and Bain can be added to the list of those with a Scottish-based development. This is surely a worrying indictment of Celtic’s strength in relation to the overall health of the SPFL.

A reduction in the opportunities afforded to substitutes through a reduction in the permitted number during a Premiership match would surely see a number leave for more game-time elsewhere. This would force Celtic to look to their academy or to offer top talents from within the league the chance to come and prove themselves at Parkhead – as Taylor has done since joining from Kilmarnock in 2019.

If the SPFL is committed to growth and the development of players capable of reaching the top level, there is one change that can be made easily to benefit the many that will only adversely affect the well-off few. What’s stopping them?