It’s springtime, so discussion has started again about how to make the game in Scotland more exciting but, as Gavin Saxton reports, none of those that are being put forward are likely to do much about the two or three elephants that live in the room that is Scottish football.
As happens every year in Scottish football, there have again been calls for a revamp of the league structure, in particular an expansion of the SPL. This year, however, the calls have been a little louder than usual and even Walter Smith got himself involved. Part of me is actually sort of attracted by the symmetry of the calls for an 18 team league, which would wind the clock back to the mid 70s and accept that the whole Premier League thing was probably a silly idea from the off, but sadly the arguments that it would improve the Scottish game don’t stand up to a great deal of scrutiny.
Indeed, it’s quite hard to follow the arguments as to how this is supposed to work, though there are several different proposals and the arguments for them sometimes contradictory. Smith was reported as advocating an 18 team league (though in fact he didn’t, he only said it would be “the ideal scenario” if it could be made to work) in order to cut out the “embarrassment” of the split and to lessen the boredom factor of playing clubs four times, but once the initial novelty has worn off it’s difficult to see anyone getting more excited about playing games against lesser teams instead.
This doesn’t only apply to Rangers and Celtic. The likes of Kilmarnock and St Mirren might initially be attracted to the idea of an expanded SPL since it would mean avoiding the annual relegation battle, but are they really going to attract more fans along once they found that there was nothing to play for by February every year and just games against Ross County and Raith Rovers to look forward to? (No disrespect to either.) Again, the novelty would wear off pretty quickly. And it would be less, not more, attractive to televsion, in addition to which you’re spreading the TV deal more thinly across a larger number of clubs – but by the way there’s no way the big two are going to settle for a reduction in their share, particularly at a time when they’re faced with a loss of income from European games, and it’ll still be their games that are selected, after all.
Others are instead calling for a 16 or even 14 team league with assorted ideas of splits and play-offs which might maintain the interest in the season for longer, but as far as I can follow them seem designed solely to embarrass Walter Smith even further while doing little to offer any hope of improving the quality of fare on offer.
There are other practical problems with increasing the disparity of standard too. Ground criteria, for example. Back in the 90s the SPL’s ham-fisted efforts to raise standards caused all sorts of problems and left a number of second tier clubs with white elephants. They’ve since toned the rules down but even the toned down version would cause serious problems for some of the teams bubbling under at the top, currently, of the third tier – Brechin, Alloa, Cowdenbeath. What happens when they have their season in the sun and make the top 18 (it’ll happen from time to time): are they to spend a comparative fortune on their ground in order to be able to host those two big games in a season, knowing they might go straight back down and never need it again?
All of these schemes are simply a sign of boredom with the current set-up and are touted with only the vaguest of hopes that changing the formula once again might make something happen. None of them will, because none of them address the central problem – the disparity of resources between the big two clubs and all the others. Proponents of expansion observe that there is not a huge difference between the lower rungs of the SPL and the top of the first division, and they might be right – the likes of Dundee, Dunfermline and Partick should all be capable of competing, and – with the atypical exception of Gretna – none of the teams who have gone up in recent years have come straight back down.
This, however, misses the point, because the gulf in class doesn’t come between the SPL and the First Division – it comes higher up. None of Hamilton, St Mirren, Falkirk have come straight back down but none of them have made any progress to speak of either, none of them have even mounted a sustained challenge on the top six, still less looked like they were on the same planet as the big two. That in itself would seem to show that simply being in the same division as bigger teams isn’t enough to raise you anywhere near their standard unless you’re on a level playing field – so how is adding more teams at the bottom end of the mix intended to address that problem?
I’m not implacably opposed to expansion, it’s just hard to see that it will affect things much either way. If you were really serious about creating a better and more competitive Scottish game, and having maybe a couple more teams who could make a fist of things in Europe, then you need to level the field – take power and resources away from the Old Firm and redistribute them across the game. Equal TV money, shared gate receipts – however you want to do it. I fully understand why none of that is going to happen and I’m not seriously proposing it, but that’s the central problem that needs to be addressed, and no amount of tinkering with the league structure is going to make the blindest bit of difference.