After all the fuss about the refereeing crisis, it’s time for Scottish football to return to some semblance of normality and get back to what it does best and spends most of its time doing – discussing league reconstruction. The second part of (former First Minister) Henry McLeish’s review of the Scottish game is due to be published tomorrow (Thursday), and is expected to make recommendations for the professional game and league set up.
But the SPL, or at least their working group, have pre-empted this by leaking their own proposals, in advance of a full meeting this coming Monday (20th) where all twelve SPL clubs will get their first chance to look them over and discuss them. Proposals for league reconstruction are, of course, ten a penny, and the insistent demand for “change” or “reform”, apparently as an end in its own right, is becoming worse than the most tedious of general election campaigns.
But this particular set of proposals, or the bits of them they’ve floated so far, are almost breathtaking in their audacity. Essentially, the SPL wants to take over the rest of Scottish football and organise everybody else to suit themselves.
Let’s have a quick reminder of the SPL’s track record so far. They split off from the SFL in 1998, having seen the success of the English equivalent in the preceding few years. The hope was that we could do much the same, it would generate more revenue, drive up standards, improve facilities and provide a platform for improved Scottish performances on both a European and an international level. In every one of these aims it has been, pretty much, a complete failure. European performances have dropped off; a national team that had qualified for four of the previous five major tournaments up to 1998 has qualified for none since; the Old Firm have found their clout and ability to buy top overseas talent has dropped off dramatically; lower down the league standards haven’t noticeably improved – if anything the financial disparity between the SPL and the first division has led to a more attritional style of football between teams who simply can’t afford to be relegated. And the crass and ill-thought ground criteria with which the SPL set out has left a number of clubs now in lower leagues with white elephants and long-term financial problems.
Even the revenue streams proved largely illusory, and the bursting of the Setanta bubble instead left a number of teams on the brink. Indeed, the SPL has seen the worst of the financial problems in recent years – four of the last six administrations in the Scottish league have come in the top division (and the other two have been teams who had been relegated from the SPL within that period).
In short, they’ve been crap. It hasn’t worked. Hence, I guess, these continual demands for “change”. They’ve tinkered with the format from time to time without coming close to addressing any of the actual problems (which would involve upsetting the Big Two), and of course it’s been to no avail. So this time, it would seem, they’ve got really ambitious. They’ve decided that the reasons for this conspicuous lack of success have little to do with the failings of the SPL itself. No, the problems, apparently, are with the rest of Scottish football, which accordingly needs to be rearranged to make the SPL work better.
Of course, there’s a problem here. Having chosen to go their own way back in the 90s, the top league has lost any influence it might have had in how the lower leagues choose to organise themselves. So, cool as you like, they’re very generously offering to take over the lot. Not only in setting up the long-mooted SPL2, but the rest of the leagues as well – which they would basically like to see abolished and see the end of the SFL altogether. Quite why we might want to hand over the reins to the whole of the national game to an organisation that has failed so miserably so far I have no idea, but let’s look at what seem to be the specific proposals.
There are a few changes mooted for the top division itself. The reduction to a ten team league, the introduction of play-offs to create a possible second promotion / relegation spot, and a winter break. Careful observers will note that these are all things that have been tried and rejected by the top division in its very recent past. The ten team league was scrubbed in 2000, mostly because supporters were fed up playing all the same teams four times a season; and the winter break was scrubbed for a variety of reasons – among the most obvious being the unpredictability of when the bad weather will come. (In this calendar year alone we’ve seen games postponed for snow at the end of March, and again before the end of November.) The play-off, in fairness, was scrubbed by the old Scottish Premier Division during the mid 90s, before the days of the SPL. Nonetheless, for all three of these proposals, it’s hard to see what has changed to make them any more attractive than they were when they were ditched.
The ten team league has come as a particular surprise, as most discussions lately had focused on increasing the league size – to 16 or 18 teams possibly, but 14 seemed to be the way we were heading. None of this is going to make the blindest bit of difference, the same problem (the disparity of income between the top two and the rest) would exist in all of them. Nonetheless, within its own terms I was just coming round to the idea that the fourteen team plan might not be such a bad one; and now they’ve gone back on it. So what’s the thinking behind ten teams? In sporting terms, there isn’t any. Neil Doncaster (the SPL Chief Executive and the man whose job is to try and sell this turd to the public) instead indicated that, with teams being unwilling to lessen their own slice of the pie, reducing the league size was the only way they could fund the next part of the scheme.
Which brings us to:
There is at least some thought to this. I mentioned above that the fear of relegation was a significant problem in the lower part of the SPL, and a second division (also of ten teams) is their attempt to bridge the financial divide and lessen the effects of such relegation. As such, it is of course an attempt to solve a problem that’s entirely of the SPL’s own making, but let’s not be too picky – I’ve looked long and hard for some redeeming feature to these proposals and this is about the best I can do. Whether it’s going to work is another matter. It’s hard to see that the money saved by reducing the SPL (even if we assume it continues to generate the same amount of cash) is going to make a sufficient difference to a whole league’s worth of teams underneath them. It would need not only to provide a much softer landing for relegated teams, but also increased prize money for the rest, if it’s to be worth anyone’s while to leave the SFL and join up. I’m struggling to make the sums work.
I repeat yet again that the real problem with distribution of income lies higher up – the top two clubs receive 32% of the revenue. That’s the bit that has to be tackled if we’re serious about a better league, and this proposal does nothing to address it.
But the real disaster, were the SPL to get their way, comes further down:
The lower leagues
If the top eight teams in the SFL jumped ship to join an SPL2, that leaves another 22 senior teams. The SPL’s proposal is that they would add their own reserve teams to this mix, and create two regional leagues of sixteen teams each. All under the SPL’s umbrella. (Though apparently, to prevent the big boys being swamped in just a new-style SFL, the little teams would be denied full voting rights.)
All of this is anathema to every fan of lower league football who I’ve spoken to. There is no desire whatever for regionalisation – the nature of the geographical spread of teams in Scotland means that it wouldn’t actually make much difference to travel cost, most teams are in the central belt with the odd trip out to outlying regions and that would stay much the same. It would be outweighed by the loss of prestige that goes with being in a national league, and the greater recognition that goes with it – the pools money, the better sponsorship opportunities. The only positive point, though I don’t think this is part of the SPL’s motivation, is that it just might help us make progress towards the long-awaited pyramid system. However there are far more hurdles that would need to be overcome for that, and in any case it wouldn’t require us to regionalise nearly so high up. At the very least there’s room for a healthily-sized third division for those part-time teams who are perfectly willing and capable of sustaining themselves in a national league. Many of these are run much more soundly than most SPL teams.
The addition of reserve sides to the leagues is even more contentious. Yes I know it works in other countries, but few other countries have the depth and tradition of lower league football that we have here in the UK.
The principle argument is that it will aid youth development. Which is a bit of a won’t-somebody-please-think-of-the-children? – it’s one of those moral imperative-type arguments that is intended to make those ho oppose it sound small-minded. But, first up, let’s remind ourselves why there’s such an apparent need for the SFL to pick up the slack in this way – it’s because the SPL sides care so much about youth development that they scrapped their reserve league (essentially on the grounds of cost) last summer. Opinions vary on whether allowing them into the league system would actually help anyway. It’s far from clear to me that it would be any better than a reserve league. If the idea is to put them in a more competitive environment then the loan system works better – that puts them in a competitive dressing room too. (Hearts and Dundee United have made particularly good use of this system in bringing their youngsters through.) Instead, a league with two different types of team with different aims, and lacking the support of the fans who are the lifeblood of these lower leagues, would be sterile.
Doncaster, and Rangers Chief Executive Martin Bain, have both been stressing this week that these proposals are intended to be in the interests of all clubs, not just the big boys. It’s quite hard to imagine that even they believe it. Even the size and format of these lower leagues is clearly designed with the big teams in mind – sixteen teams, thirty games a season, might be just a nice number for a reserve team, but it’s not nearly enough for the regular league sides, for whom the current 36 game season is already on the low side.
There is no chance of the SFL going for these proposals at the basement level. The SPL probably know that already, and this is simply an attempt to set the agenda and wrest the initiative ahead of McLeish’s report coming out.
As for the other bits of the proposals? It’s hard to tell. For a start, this has come from a working party that has contained representatives from only five teams (Celtic and Rangers being two of them) and it’s yet to be established that it would carry sufficient support even from the rest of the SPL themselves. Additionally, the SPL’s voting rules are so comical as to encapsulate the shambolic nature of the organisation as a whole – some changes would require only eight votes to pass. To increase the size of the league would have needed eleven votes, but to decrease it needs only ten. No, I’ve no idea either.
As far as SPL2 goes – if they really can fund it, then this might be a goer, the second rung of teams might well be willing to sign up. But it depends whether the SPL are willing to do such a thing in isolation, or whether it would hav to be part of the whole package, and whether they would want it to contain reserve sides, or at least the possibility of such sides being promoted to it. (The exact details of the proposals here are yet unclear.) If that’s a condition, then this is probably out the window too.
We’ll know more on Monday. This may well just be kite-flying, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they come back with a much softer, or indeed an entirely different set of proposals come next week. Who knows. The only certainty at the moment is that all the usual suspects will continue to demand “change”, that there will be plenty more talking to come before any such change comes. And when it does come, it won’t stop the demands for more of it.
Meanwhile, after half a dozen postponements on the trot, I just want to watch some football.
Edited, 16th Dec:
Well knock me down. McLeish’s report today has recommended: a ten team top division, an SPL2, a play-off in between them, the return of the winter break, regionalisation of the lower leagues, and reserve sides to be included within them. What were the odds on that? At least it saves me the bother of writing a separate article.
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