A Scheduled Problem: The SPL Starts Early
When Mick Jagger and Keith Richards kicked around the lyrics and arrangement for “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” neither likely found their inspiration from Scotsmen knocking a ball about. The chorus, however, summarizes somewhat the spot where some clubs from the SPL find themselves as the 2011/12 season approaches and stadium personnel would not be faulted for including the song during opening warm-ups. Not quite ready to reinstate a winter break abandoned following the 2000/01 campaign while largely opposed to embarking on a summer schedule, the league’s most recent solution will see its play begin on 23 July, two weeks before the English Football League and three weeks before the English Premiership. The decision for the earlier start–announced in late February–was seen by SPL CEO Neil Doncaster as an attempt to reduce fixture congestion later in the season and allow those clubs competing in Europe better preparation.
As with most things north of Hadrian’s Wall, though, the Old Firm had something to say about the alteration. This time, Celtic claimed special dispensation due to the early time conflicting with its participation in a money-spinning pre-season tournament. Doncaster and the league chiefs compromised, allowing Celtic to postpone its opening day fixture in order to take part in the Dublin Super Cup. The special accommodation then extended to the other SPL clubs, permitting them to postpone one league match during the season in lieu of a friendly. Considering friendlies provide those clubs the ability to fund their way through periods of weather cancellations within the season when no money is coming through the gate and can generate higher net profits on average than hosting league matches, the agreement makes some business sense.
So, not getting exactly what it wanted, Celtic got what it needed, but some of the league’s other clubs generally do not appear to be getting exactly what they need with the early start. Ally McCoist, new manager for the other half of the Old Firm, voiced the concern after having seen the July date creep closer in his preparations. Simply put, Rangers need new players, and those south of Glasgow whom they might be able to reach agreements with are in no rush to sign off on any deals. Having the leisure of a couple extra weeks, many English league clubs would prefer to delay any early July transfers, have players of interest to SPL managers participate in a few of their own pre-season engagements and determine if those lads are worth more being a part of their squads than whatever fee sides like Rangers, Hearts, or Dundee United wish to offer up. The shortened time line for Scottish Prem clubs could be seen to prevent them from being attractive business partners for the English clubs which might prefer a longer, slower dance with a club in the hopes of generating some sort of bidding contest for their players that increases the transfer values to them. While Scottish Premier League clubs might want to wheel and deal to get players in and acclimated to their new squads, English clubs might prefer greater deliberations.
Harry Redknapp just died a little inside thinking about that.
By opting for an earlier start in July, then, the SPL looks to have placed its clubs at a competitive disadvantage in the summer transfer market and done little in terms of assisting those European-bound sides compete at a higher level nor likely reducing fixture congestion down the road. Despite kicking off two weeks before England, the Scottish Premier League will still finish out its fixtures after the English Championship concludes and on the same weekend as Leagues One and Two. Between Scottish Cup fixtures, League Cup matches, and even Challenge Cup games, matches will persist in stacking up for those more successful sides, before that one Celtic-induced postponement is factored in and without the additional delays caused by Scotland’s notoriously foul weather during the winter period.
Granted, it remains to be seen as the summer winds down and as those clubs participating in European nights perform whether certain SPL sides find themselves at a deficit, but real-time events portend a rough beginning for some. In denying the need for a reinstatement of the winter break before, Mr. Doncaster remarked that last season’s rash of match postponements were down to unusually poor weather for Scotland. The SPL head looked simply to have been repeating himself, though, as he had said something along similar lines just a year previously, when a large number of matches were cancelled in 2009 for ice storms and blizzards. That rather unique wintry mix seems to be more common than presupposed then, so one has to wonder why that break was not included along with this season’s earlier start date as its CEO includes a future winter break as part of his strategic plan.
Overall, then, starting 23 July for the Scottish Premier League seems that it will fail on both of its presuppositions. Rather than making attempts at satisfying as many parties involved and making a bit of a mess out of whatever changes being sought to revive the game there, perhaps officials should truly investigate what other European leagues are doing and, instead of sticking out, try fitting in a bit more. A salmon every so often has a bit of a tough job swimming upstream, but it does not continue to do so all the time.