The Scottish Premiership’s Split Personality

by | Mar 11, 2020

Scottish club football’s top-flight split this season will increasingly likely fall victim to efforts to contain the coronavirus. But Mark Murphy, you’ll not be shocked to learn, thinks it was another Scottish football brain fart anyway…

The current Scottish Premiership (SPS) table makes troubling reading. For Rangers fans AND for supporters of the SPS “split.”

Since 2000/01, when Scottish club football’s top-flight increased from ten teams to 12, the SPS has split into two six-team mini-leagues after everyone has played each other three times. The top-and-bottom-sixes then meet again. This, the then-Scottish Premier League (SPL) company secretary Iain Blair said in 2012, was “essential” to “accommodate a league of 12 clubs, without forcing them to play too many matches (44).”

However, if the current top-six is the top-six when/if the 2020 split occurs, in three games’ time, leaders Celtic will have played the other five teams away twice and would be ‘due’ to play them at home once more. By alarming contrast, Rangers are ‘due’ to play the other five teams away. These are “fixture headaches” for Scotland’s Professional Football League (SPFL), caused BY the split.

In March 2001, Blair, then SPL admin and finance director, said: “We made the potential inconsistencies known to the clubs” before they voted for the split. He admitted that “in a single season, there can be problems,” but again “these were known to the clubs.” And he claimed the SPL’s “system” provided “balance over a two-year cycle,” so that “if we get everything absolutely right, the teams will have 19 games, home and away.”

Even he knew everything could not always be right, though. Asked if Celtic would have four post-split away games, Blair replied: “Celtic would play Dundee three times at home and once away but over the season will still have played 19 homes games and 19 away games.” He said the system was “designed to ensure as equitable a solution as possible” as “the clubs would not have permitted anything else” when voting for it.

“Let’s look at how it develops in the last five games,” he pleaded, confident “that everybody will enjoy the latter part of this season.” But it ‘developed’ with little added enjoyment. Celtic clinched the title before the split. The final gaps between the top four averaged 14 points. And St Mirren’s relegation battle would likely have happened anyway, as they finished five points behind second-bottom Dundee United and ten points behind third-bottom St Johnstone.

However, it has always had advocates. In April 2013, Paul Mullaney wrote a piece, on US-based “sport culture” website Bleacher Report, headlined “In Defence of the Split.” He noted that while the split “has often been” derided by “pundits, supporters and managers…it provides competition which might otherwise be lacking,” as “the vast majority of sides have no chance whatsoever of mounting a serious title challenge.”

This makes some sense. In tight fights, higher percentages of games become “six-pointers.” Thus, the SPL’s 2010 “Guide to the Split” claimed it had reduced “the number of meaningless mid-table clashes” (and in 2012, Blair added that the split also provided “additional interest in the run up to the split itself”). Yes, some clubs could play “18 home games and 20 away, or vice versa,” or “three home games and one away, or (vice versa), against a certain opponent.” But it said “such instances will be rare,” identifying ten examples in ten seasons and noting sniffily that “all clubs were aware of (this) prior to introducing the system.”

Yet the ‘solution’ effectively acknowledged the top-flight’s competitive imbalance; a “league seeding” system, based on clubs’ past record. This still informs top-six ‘predictions,’ from which the SPFL fashions post-split fixtures. As Blair said in 2001: “If a club is the top-six that we did not predict, it adopts the fixtures of the team they replaced.” But it has more caveats than the Labour Party’s Brexit policy at the last general election. For instance, Celtic/Rangers cannot be a title-decider, for dismally obvious public order reasons. And it only ‘works’ when final positions are entirely ‘predictable,’ the very thing the split is supposed to minimise.

In 2020, it hasn’t ‘worked.’ Celtic are ‘due’ five post-split home games for the above reasons. But SPFL rules restrict them to just three, as Celtic and Rangers must play 19 times home and away (another acknowledgement of competitive imbalance). So, which two to move? Celtic would not relish a third trip to Livingston, after torrid times there last October and last week. And, presumably, the SPFL wouldn’t feed Celtic fans’ paranoia forever by scheduling a third trip to Ibrox.

Of course, this assumes that five post-split home games is ‘unfair.’ But, based on the most current form (and assuming away to Livingston is harder than home to Hamilton, to pick an example purely at random), Celtic have had the hardest fixture-list so far, playing the other top-six sides away twice. Five post-split home games just facilitates the same full-season fixtures as their top-six rivals. And five post-split away games means the same for Rangers, as they have had the easiest fixture-list so far, hosting the other top-six sides twice, just as they had in 2018 too. Lucky them, eh?

This fixture-imbalance has happened, despite four of 2018/19’s top six being in the current top six, purely because Kilmarnock and Hearts are in the bottom six. But the split was never designed to facilitate ‘sporting integrity,’ an alien concept to Scottish senior football, let alone in an SPFL whose seventh-place team has finished with more points than the sixth-place team 12 times in 19 seasons of splits, while still getting seventh-place prize money (currently £130,000 less, not a pittance to a mid-table SPFL side).

In April 2010, the Daily Record ‘newspaper’s’ Neil Cameron cited “problems with the split every year…with just about every club feeling hard done by at some stage.” Dundee United’s then-boss Craig Levein opined in 2007: “The split is rubbish. It is just nonsense.” In 2010, Walter Smith labelled Rangers’ three post-split away games in ten days “ridiculous.”

And in 2018, Hearts said playing Rangers away three times was “the least unacceptable option,” which SPFL CE Neil Doncaster ‘explained’ thus: “Motherwell got an extra home game” and “Hearts lost one” because both were guaranteed mid-table places, despite Rangers’ above-mentioned fixture-list imbalance necessitating the move.

Doncaster gave as absurd an ‘explanation’ in an April 2018 article by the Telegraph newspaper’s Roddy Forsyth (who must wish Rangers had only visited Hearts once THIS season). “It creates imbalances as a mathematical certainty,” he admitted, out loud. His list of “competing interests” in the split put police and broadcasters before “the clubs” he is paid to represent. He credited the split for “helicopter finishes on the last day of the season” and “creating” the “hallmarks of our game…passion, drama and excitement,” as if both were purely 21st-century concepts.

Forsyth, meanwhile, echoed both Blair’s 2001 comments and the SPL’s 2010 guide, noting that: “Clubs never mention during the annual condemnation that they all voted for it.” This, though, has always been disingenuous. Its removal has required the almost unanimous support of top-flight clubs. As does a top-flight expansion, which would remove the need for the split, but which has only seriously entertained when, co-incidentally, the new Rangers weren’t in it. The “will of the people” has never been 52% in Scottish club football (see “Old Firm” for details).

For what they were worth (two-tenths of five-eighths of SFA, in Scotland as elsewhere), fans’ views were canvassed by Thomas McGuigan in an April 2009 BBC Scotland website article which should have been headlined “Supporters split over split” but wasn’t.

Hamilton fan Stephen Shilton called the split “probably successful” and “exciting for the sides in the bottom six, as we are, because you’re up against the sides competing to avoid relegation.” But it was “a bit ridiculous” because “by its very nature, league competition should be measured against the other teams home and away. Not just half of them.” And he asked “what’s the point” if “Motherwell finish seventh and won’t be relegated and can’t catch the teams above them?”

Celtic’s Tommy Cowan advocated 18 top-flight teams “playing each other twice,” like in “real leagues.” Hearts fan Grant Thorburn was unequivocal: “I hate the split,” complaining that “the only certainty” was two Celtic/Rangers games home and away (then enshrined in broadcast deals). However, Dundee United’s Mike Evans liked it “from a financial perspective.” And Hibee Ronnie Pont said it made “the play-off for the European spot more intense.”

No system can overcome the Scottish top-flight’s inherent competitive deficit. Clubs having five post-split home/away games is no more iniquitous than the SPFL’s countless other inequities. But in 2012, Blair said that the split would never be “consigned to the history books” while “the 12-team league remains,” even though “it would certainly make life easier from a fixturing point of view.” Indeed, in 2018, after 19 years ‘organising’ the split, he declared: “Unfortunately there is no such thing as a perfect fixture list.” But, hey, why should such trivialities matter?

The split will always cause more problems than it solves. Ending it would surely be the “least unacceptable option.” But even that seems beyond Scottish football just now.