Okay. Yes I am a Raith fan and this article might look like a thinly-disguised excuse to brag about the us being top of the league, but it’s not that. Well. Not just that. Maybe it’s that too, a little bit. (And I thought I’d better get the article up today in case we get knocked off the top over the weekend, in which case I’d have needed to look for a different title.) But there is a serious point here. Recent events – talk of SPL reconstruction as well as Dundee’s slump into administration – have prompted a fair amount of discussion about the long term future of Scotland’s second tier, where teams are struggling to stay full-time on gates that are often under 2,000.
It’s been a predominantly full-time league since the least major reconstruction in 1994, when the SFL switched from three divisions to four. Ever since then, the received wisdom has been that to thrive in the first division – or even to survive for any length of time – you had to be full-time. There have been some caveats of course, over the years, and some clubs have made the transition more smoothly than others, but generally speaking those clubs who have hung around (Ross County, Queen of the South, Hamilton) have been those who have gone full-time, while the part-timers (Brechin, Stranraer, Stirling Albion last time round) have dropped back down to the lower tiers.
Accordingly every club who wanted to be seen as having ambition has been making every effort possible to stay full-time, and despite the difficulties it’s been getting them into no one has wanted to blink first – the presumption being they would lose credibility as well as being immediately relegated. It’s stayed that way despite the financial meltdowns of Clyde and Livingston two seasons ago (Dundee’s more recent example is atypical) and ongoing problems at the likes of Partick and previously Airdrie. But now the signs are that things may be about to change.
There are a number of reasons for this. Last winter was a very bad one, which accentuated financial problems for a number of clubs. Also, while last season there were no (fully) part-time clubs in the league, this season there are two – the newly-promoted sides in Stirling and Cowdenbeath, who both came up rather in spite of off-field problems as documented on twohundredpercent during last season. Neither was thus in any position to consider any increase in budgets. And both of them have made a decent fist of their starts to the season. We’ll have to see how they fare as the winter sets in, but Dundee’s twenty-five point deduction obviously makes a big difference to their survival prospects, with only a single automatic relegation spot to avoid.
And then there’s the SPL, who have been talking about expansion or further reconstruction since about the day after the last one (actually, probably before that) but now seem to be quite serious about it. The clock is ticking on any plans to make it happen by next season, but whether it’s next year or the year after it’s now starting to seem probable that they’ll be increasing to fourteen clubs. Now, there has also been talk, from the top clubs, of a second tier SPL with the next best sides plus their own reserve sides. This would open up whole cans of worms, but I don’t intend to worry about them because there’s no evidence that anyone at the level below is interested in it. So the second tier will remain just as it is, but would comprise the 15th – 24th sides rather than the current 13th – 22nd. At a stroke, this would take out two of the top – presumably better-supported – teams from the first division, thus reducing gates all round, and would increase the number of part-time teams coming up from below, thus taking away the stigma and the (perceived) risk of going part-time and finding yourselves to be the only ones.
So there’s a strong feeling that some clubs will head this way over the next year or two. The recently-departed Partick Chairman, Allan Cowan, had spoken openly of the possibility, and Morton Chairman Douglas Rae has also dropped a strong hint in that direction, if things don’t pick up for them this season.
And the model that everyone is looking towards is Raith’s. The Rovers have made huge strides since John McGlynn took over as manager, four years ago this month, and they’ve done so with a full-time / part-time hybrid. They were second from bottom in Division Two when McGlynn arrived, after a miserable few years which had already banished memories of their days in the sun in the mid-90s, and they had an essentially part-time squad. Over the course of the next couple of years, this was maintained but built around a core of full-time players as McGlynn set about turning the club round.
Progress was not immediate – the first two seasons saw play-off defeats – but in May 2009 this paid dividends when they secured the second division title. Progress since then has continued apace – and still based on the same model, a mix of full- and part-time players, backed up with the odd judicious loan signing. Here McGlynn’s contacts and his reputation as a youth coach from his days at Hearts were a big help – Raith have been an attractive option for SPL clubs looking to lend out youngsters. David Goodwillie (Dundee United) and David Templeton (Hearts) are two of those who are now flourishing in the SPL after spells at Starks Park.
Last season a then newly-promoted Raith side got off to a flier, and though league form slumped with a fixture pile-up in the spring, they also reached the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup after impressive away wins at Aberdeen and Dundee. And this season has started even better, with just a couple of astute additions to the squad they’ve started with 26 points from the first eleven games, with a particularly impressive defensive record of just five goals conceded.
This is the model that other clubs are now looking at and hoping to emulate, and it’ll be interesting to see how this develops. There are, however, some reasons to treat their current success with caution:
Firstly, of course, it’s only one example and one particular group of players. Ayr had a similar set-up last season but went down, and Raith happen to have hit on a rich and productive squad dynamic at the moment. It’s needed a manager who is not only very good but also a workaholic and prepared to be there round the clock. The full-timers have also had to be flexible about training schedules etc. (Can you imagine, say, Man City’s millionaires being told to train at nights to fit in with the part-timers?)
Secondly, they have some value in uniqueness right now, as the strongest side in the country to make use of part-timers. That’s not to say they’ve had their pick, but they have nonetheless been an attractive prospect for those part-time players who had good jobs elsewhere and wanted to stay that way.
Thirdly, few Raith fans expect the current run to continue, at least to this extent. The run of single goal wins and injury-time winners is not down to luck, but it does leave pretty tight margins and things are bound to go against us sooner or later. We’ve also been pretty lucky with injuries thus far – the back four have all been ever-presents – and once that starts to change both Dunfermline and Falkirk look to have stronger squads.
Finally, it should be noted that the extent of our part-time participation has been considerably exaggerated this season by a number of the journalists and people from other clubs who I’ve heard talking about us in the media. Particularly since promotion, we’ve been gradually whittling down the number of such players – last season there were (I believe) eight in the first-team squad. But with a couple of players moving on, and Laurie Ellis and Dougie Hill giving up their day-jobs (driving instructor and plumber, respectively) to concentrate on football, we’re now down to just four. Two of those are the goalkeepers, though far be it from me to suggest that ‘keepers can get by with less demanding training schedules …. . And with Mark Campbell making a gradual return from injuries sustained in a very nasty car smash in February, that leaves Mark Ferry as the only part-time outfielder to have made any significant contribution on the pitch this season.
Nonetheless, despite all of those caveats, the success thus far shouldn’t be scoffed at. At the very least Raith have shown that, simply in terms of logistics, it’s possible with the right people to make such a model work. And not just work to scrape by, but work to make real progress. If that progress continues then it may well prove to have wider ramifications for football in Division One.
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