Scottish Football: A Seven Point Plan
1. Merge the governing bodiesAlthough most of the proposals in McLeish’s report are broadly welcome, there was at least one headline part of it which seemed to rather miss the point: the requirement for an extra £500 million to be spent on facilities over the next ten years. I can’t help thinking that if the answer is “more money” then he’s probably asked the wrong question – of course more money would be welcome if it’s available, but who wouldn’t say the same? What sporting organisation anywhere in the country couldn’t commission its own report into its performance, conclude that it could do better if the government gave it some more cash and then hold out a begging bowl? Why should anyone entertain football’s special demands here?
I do think there are some answers to this, given football’s unique place in the national psyche, but if football is to make special demands then at the very least it has to get is own house in order first and show that’s it’s worthy of such investment. That, for starters, has to mean unifying the governing bodies to be sure that everyone is at least working in the same direction. As McLeish noted in the context of youth development:
To make more sense of the youth development, a shared approach is required. In Holland, this is reasonably straightforward because they have two basic structures, professional and amateur, allowing the national authority to represent its interests in a simpler and more coherent fashion. Unlike Scotland where there is fragmentation and in some crucial areas a difficulty in working together at grassroots level. Despite which, he then seems to have stopped short of calling for any talk of mergers, instead there is simply grand talk of everyone “working more closely together”. Maybe he really does have more confidence than anyone else that this will happen of its own accord, but I suspect McLeish simply didn’t want the project to get sidetracked by this issue, particularly if it turned out to be unachievable.Most of us think it’s not going to happen without knocking some heads together first and the Supporters Direct survey came out strongly in favour of the SFA, SPL and SFL being merged into a single organisation. I don’t go quite this far, there’s something to be said for having a separate league and national association, but as a minimum the SPL and SFL should be merged back into a single body.
At the moment it’s impossible to pretend they’re working together – it took them long enough to get them even to talk to each other to prevent them from scheduling fixture clashes in Dundee. The SPL’s ill-thought ground criteria in the 90s caused lasting damage to a number of club, and while these rules have been relaxed, the drawbridge-pulling mentality of the SPL remains unaffected – there’s still only a single promotion place and no longer a play-off. The two leagues have assorted rules which are pointlessly different, for example a different attitude to artificial pitches – several lower league clubs have very good 3G pitches now, which have come into their own this winter, as well as providing more facilities for youth football during the week and additional sources of income. All very positive, unless and until you get promoted to the SPL at which point you have to rip it up and use grass. And there are other discrepancies, such as the lack of adequate compensation arrangements for young out-of-contract players moving between leagues – as Ayr discovered a couple of years ago when Craig Conway left for Dundee United and the SPL club no longer felt bound by the tribunal system. If you’re looking for joined-up thinking that’s going to help promote youth development, that clearly isn’t it.
I’m tempted to recommend merging the SFA and SJFA too, but I’ll leave discussion on that to point 3.
2. Restructure the leagues
Some of conclusions from the Supporters Direct survey were so simplistic as to risk damaging its own credibility. That supporters would like lower prices and higher quality football, that they want themselves to have greater influence over the game and TV companies less is all about as surprising as it is helpful. However, the call for larger leagues was too strong to be ignored – as you’d imagine, fans are not excited by playing the same teams four times a season (only 4% said they liked this) and want to return to larger leagues – 90% calling for restructuring.
I agree, but with some caveats. It’s only a few weeks since I argued on this site that league reconstruction was a red herring and would not, in isolation, address the problems facing the game. It’s only useful if you’re also tackling the inequalities that militate against a larger top division at the moment. Nonetheless, if you were designing a league structure from scratch you would not start with a twelve team league and it’s rather ungainly split, and since this article is also going to tackle those inequalities (see point 7) we’ll run with it.
An eighteen team top league then, with 34 games a season. Then a twenty team second division below that (coincidentally this is exactly what we had before we started messing about with it in the 70s). I doubt there’ll be enough teams to support a nationwide third division – though I’d be delighted if there was enough interest there to prove me wrong – so that would mean four of the forty two current league clubs going back into the regional structure just below. This shouldn’t be the death of them however, as those leagues can be made much more competitive, with automatic promotion available back to the League. Which brings us to ….
3. Set a timetable for the introduction of a pyramid
Despite, once again, this idea getting an overwhelimg vote of confidence from the fan’s survey (83%) this is one of the trickiest bits, not least because there isn’t even a single code or organising body at non-league level. There are “senior” non-leagues, principally the Highland League, South of Scotland League and East of Scotland League, and “junior” non-leagues overseen by the SJFA, affiliated to but distinct from the SFA. They play in different tournaments – only in the last couple of years have four junior sides been admitted to the Scottish Cup (where they’ve done well enough to suggest the standard is at least similar) – and have separate player registration set-ups. Again, it’s not how anyone would design it if you were starting from scratch.
Which is why I want to suggest merging the bodies as a prelude to any attempt to merge the leagues, but I have some sympathy for the considerable resistance this is going to generate – the McLeish report is not the SJFA’s doing, they’re quite happy carrying on with their own thing, they have a good deal of community involvement and harness the work of many of the volunteers whose time and effort is essential to making the game function at grassroots level, and you don’t want to risk losing any of that. Nonetheless, if the sport as a whole is to attract the investment it needs then any differences need to be overcome. Currently McLeish was having to restrict his comments on youth development to certain specified leagues without being able to take in the whole structure. It’s difficult to see how we’re going to get a properly focused nationwide scheme while that is the case, and difficult to see why anyone would give us more money, that being so.
So, if not an immediate merger, then at least a body represented by all interested parties, overseen by the SFA, and charged with unifying the leagues and producing a pyramid structure that can contest and cope with promotion and relegation throughout, including to and from the league proper. I’m thinking a four year deadline. It won’t be easy, and it’s important not to be too strict about the conditions on which you do so. In particular, ground criteria. I’ve already mentioned the problems the SPL caused to the level below it when it set its initial ground criteria back in the 90s, and it would be all too easy to see these mistakes repeated at lower levels of the game, with clubs either having to accept they have no means of progression within the new system, or having to get themselves into difficulties getting the ground up to unnecessarily high standards in order to stand a chance of doing so. We need to be as relaxed as possible about this.
The geography is awkward too. Another columnist on this site wrote recently of the problems caused in the Conference South in England by the geographic imbalances in the teams. In Scotland, the scattered nature of the Highland League would accentuate any such problems – any team from the central belt relegated into a northern league would find itself with a good deal more travelling in the supposedly regional league than they currently have in the national one. So it might be that the first regional tier would have to run with three leagues – North, Central, South – rather than the more attractive prospect of two – North / East and South / West.
And there is considerable doubt as to whether there is sufficient will among the leagues and clubs concerned to make this work at all. Certainly, we’d have to accept that not every club would want or be able to take up an offer of promotion. But if there was discretion to offer the places instead to a lower-placed side (this already happens in England, where relevant) then hopefully there are enough clubs with enough ambition to make a go of it.
4. Open up the Scottish Cup
The early stages of the FA Cup in England are a wonderful thing – the qualifying rounds, and the preliminary rounds and whatever other rounds they have over the course of months before they get to the first round proper. “The romance of the cup” really does exist from the outset, and it generates a unique interest and an excitement – and numbers through the gates – at all levels of the game. You can’t manufacture that sort of tradition, but is there any reason you can’t have a go? The Scottish Cup can be modelled the same way, let anyone enter right down the rungs of the game, and have as many rounds as you need. I’m confident it would generate enough excitement and thus income to sustain itself. Early rounds would, I imagine, need to be regional, and I’m open to the idea they may have to finish on the day rather than go to replays (so long as such a change is of course resisted once you get to the tournament itself) but I’m sure all this can be done, and it might even help in the more difficult processes we’re trying to sort out in the leagues.
5. Reform the club licensing system
This is another one that Supporters Direct showed fans heavily in favour of, wanting to include factors such as “financial stability”, “involvement of supporters” and “business competence of directors” – these being voted the top three criteria. This is well-motivated of course, but the devil is in the detail, and in particular how you’re planning to measure and monitor all of these things. Even if the SFL had the resources to appoint accountants to investigate, say, Livingston in the Massone era, it’s not entirely clear to me what powers anyone would have to do anything about it at any earlier stage. And even organisations with the resources of the Premier League in England are having well-documented trouble finding a Fit & Proper Persons Test that can be made to stick.
So, as easy as it is to have grand ideas, I have some reservations about this one. Nonetheless, that’s not an excuse for throwing up your hands and saying nothing can be done – with a bit of effort we can have a club licensing system that will do something more useful than the current one, which mainly seems to concern itself with fining lower league clubs for having a pitch too small. Again I’m going to cop out and defer much of the detail on how it’ll work, but just for a couple of examples I think it’s quite possible to ask for regular submission of accounts and demonstration of being up-to-date with Inland Revenue payments (always a good early sign of a club running itself into trouble) alongside any ground and pitch issues as part of the terms of league membership.
Also included in the favoured criteria by the survey was “effectiveness of youth development programme”. I think here there’s something to be said for the current system of licensing these separately, but in any case that brings us to the next topic.
6. Promote and incentivise youth development
As already mentioned, this was one of the principle areas addressed by the first part of McLeish’s report, and with the caveat already mentioned about finance, I broadly welcome and agree with most of his proposals and am happy to incorporate them here. Heavily influenced by the Dutch model, the recommendations include:
- The appointment of a Performance Director to oversee youth development
- More youth football to be played through the summer
- The creation of upwards of twenty schools of football
- The introduction of a physical literacy programme in schools
- Clubs to be rewarded for producing home-grown players (or “home bread” players as my favourite typo in the report has it)
All of this is good. The “schools of football” idea is, effectively, to turn a school in each region into a specialist sports / football school, an excellent plan which is relatively inexpensive and already being tried in Falkirk, while the physical literacy programme acknowledges that there are greater social trends needing to be tackled here and a greater focus on health and fitness is necessary anyway. (I speak, mind you, as someone who’s hopelessly unfit and spent most of my PE lessons at school wishing we could get back to class and do some maths or something.)
More detail is required on the last item about rewards. McLeish doesn’t give an awful lot on that point, merely saying that “Incentives should be developed, as part of the income distribution process within the game”. Again, fine but it’s another devil-in-the-detail thing and I’d want to know how it would work. For the most part getting more youngsters into the professional game has to be pushed from the bottom up, players have to get into teams by being good enough, rather than a top down system that effectively forces teams to field youngsters they might know to be inferior players. You also want to avoid a situation where players might find they’re washed up and can’t get a contract beyond a certain age – that’s not going to help encourage anyone into professional football in the first place. Nonetheless you often don’t know how good a player will be until you give him the chance, so I’ll give any such proposal a cautious welcome. In the meantime I’ll be watching the County Championship down south with some interest to see what effect similar and recently-introduced rules have on English cricket over the coming few years.
All this is talk at the moment, and “concentrate on youth development” is a very easy thing to say and rarely amounts to much. But I do think that some of these proposals can and will make a difference. Time will tell.
7. Redistribute income
And here comes the crunch. None of these other schemes will amount to anything in the current environment while two clubs, in particular, hog the lion’s share of the resources and dominate a dull and uncompetitive domestic league. That has to change. There are several ways we could do it – I’m going to propose the sharing of gate receipts and a more even split of TV revenue, for starters, but there are other possible plans too, some of them even more drastic, which you could look to.
To be absolutely clear, this is not any sort of vendetta against the Old Firm, nor is it the politics of envy or an attempt to even standards simply by making the best clubs worse. I also acknowledge that having two clubs performing reasonably well in Europe over a period of time has represented Scotland on a wider stage, given some of our international players the chance to play at a higher standard and brought some money into the game. Unconvinced though I am that the trickle-down effect to the rest of the domestic game has amounted to much, these are benefits which are not to be ignored and have to be borne in mind when proposing any steps that might hamper the efforts of the clubs concerned to compete at that level.
But, those aren’t and can’t be decisive factors. Success in Europe is a bonus but as an extension of, not at the cost of, the strength of the domestic game. Ultimately the current situation, playing in a league that provides them little competition and which is too lop-sided to be of much interest to the TV market, does Celtic and Rangers themselves little good in the long run. There’s a certain irony in noting that, from 2011, only one of them will be able to play in the Champions League – not because they’ve done too badly in that themselves, but because of the catastrophic record of the third and fourth placed teams entering the UEFA Cup.
So, time to redistribute income more equitably, and there’s really no reason to be shy about doing so – the big clubs need the rest of Scottish football more than vice versa. They’ll still be the richest clubs, of course, as they’ll still have more fans, but this has polarised sharply in recent years and I stress again that in the long-term it’s in their interests too that steps be taken to redress it. Success at other levels, including the international team, is a consequence of a healthier and more competitive national league. Focus on that and the rest will follow.
Those, then, are my proposals for the Scottish game. Any thoughts?