Not because of the league structure, particularly, though here again there’s nothing much to recommend the proposal either. The idea is to increase the SPL to fourteen teams, as has been mooted for a while, and then form a second division also of fourteen teams. In the top flight at least, the idea is to keep the much-derided split. Although the form this would take has not been clarified here, the plan seems to be that the split would take place after two rounds of fixtures (ie 26 games) rather than the current three, with the top six playing each other another twice and the remaining eight likewise. It’s not clear whether they envisage the second tier having a similar split or whether they’d play a 39 game season with three rounds of fixtures. The latter worked okay in the first and second divisions prior to 1994 but has obvious drawbacks, while a split at this level makes even less sense – in the top flight the biggest teams tend to have more cup games over the season so there’s at least some sense to them having fewer league games (even if not very much), but this doesn’t apply lower down.
Those quibbles aside, this plan is neither particularly better nor particularly worse than most of the others that have been floating around for the past few years. It would work okay within its own terms but would change nothing and address none of the problems that make the SPL such an uninteresting league at present – mostly, the financial disparity between the big two and the rest.
For all Rangers’ problems and their ongoing pleas of poverty, this disparity is as big as ever. Anyone who had hoped that Celtic’s failure to qualify for the Champions League (or even the Europa League) and Rangers’ well-publicised issues with their bank might give the rest of the pack some hope of narrowing the gap has had any such thoughts rudely dispelled in the early weeks of the season. Both the Old Firm have started with five straight wins: Dundee United are still the country’s third best side but were brushed aside 4-0 at Ibrox this weekend, while Kilmarnock are the only side to even score against Celtic.
(Walter Smith was in amusing form this week, complaining about financial disparities on a European level which prevented poor sides like his own from getting a fair crack of the whip. It’s a staggering thing for an Old Firm manager to say, and he reacted belligerently when this hypocrisy was pointed out to him.)
But the reason this new proposal is worse than all the others is that, for the first time, the SPL are making proposals about what they want to happen even lower down the league. It’s not very clear whether they want to take over the running of the next rung themselves or whether they want to set the terms under which the SFL operate, but either way the biggest few want to be able to enter their own reserve sides at this level. Again, there’s been vague talk of it for years, but it’s closer to becoming a concrete proposal now due to the collapse last year of the SPL’s own Reserve League.
For most of the SPL’s history, entry to the Reserve League was mandatory, but with growing financial troubles in 2009 (exacerbated if not caused by the collapse of Setanta) this was loosened. Initially entry was to become optional, but it quickly became apparent that so many teams would exercise their right not to enter that there would be no viable league, so the whole thing was scrapped. For clubs with larger squads this has left a problem, particularly for players who have come out of the under 19s and still need experience to bridge the gap between that and first team football. This is an issue that needs a solution, for the sake of the development of the national game and not just the clubs concerned. But the SFL still manage to run a reserve league (twelve of the thirty sides have entered this season, even on their lower resources) – if SPL sides regard it as such a priority they’re perfectly capable of finding their own solution without compromising the integrity of lower leagues.
Ultimately, while it’s easy to blame the immediate cause of Setanta, the non-existence of the SPL Reserve League is their own decision and their own fault. The SPL has not been the attractive money-spinner they hoped, and now precisely because of their own mismanagement they want to make a power grab for the rest of Scottish football in order to bail them out. They can, of course, shove it, and luckily the signs are that most of the lower league clubs feel that way. I for one would have no interest in a league that was heavily skewed by (full-time) reserve sides that weren’t competing on the same terms and weren’t eligible for promotion. I don’t care if it happens and works okay in other countries – there are few other countries across Europe with the tradition or strength in depth of lower league football, relative to the size of the country, as is the case here in Britain.
The only “attraction” they can offer is potentially higher gates a couple of times a season. This comes with its own problems though – as Albion Rovers manager Paul Martin hinted in his response those fans tend to be of a different nature to the usual turn-out, and would require to be managed differently. It’s far from clear that everyone would consider this desirable even in itself. And certainly not enough so to compensate for the obvious disadvantages of having such teams blocking their own progress.
Furthermore, the clubs in the lowest tiers of the SFL are not necessarily the ones most urgently in need of money. There are exceptions to this, but the most serious financial difficulties have tended to happen higher up, with clubs who have gone out on a limb to go (or stay) full-time or build stadia to meet SPL criteria, while the SPL itself has accounted for four of the last five clubs in administration. If the top clubs think that those on the lowest rungs are going to roll over to have their tummies tickled then they’re about to find out it’s not that easy. Mostly, they’re not so desparate that they’ll regard the visit of some Old Firm fans twice a season as the godsend that others might imagine.
I can’t see that part of the plan coming to anything, it’ll just be another of the many plans to end up on the scrap heap. As for the restructuring itself, something will probably happen sooner or later – maybe in time for next season, maybe not. Anyone expecting it to solve anything shouldn’t hold their breath.
19th Sept 2010