We all know that Scottish football has long been need of a ‘radical’ shake up. The quality of football is, without exaggeration, terrible. The league is stagnating, our national team is insipid and it is hard to see where the next generation of talented Scots players and managers are going to come from in a format that has been derided by the fans and the professionals alike. As editor Michael will tell you, if Jim Jefferies is criticising you on aesthetics then you must be in trouble.
In order to combat this, SPL Chief Executive Neil Doncaster has announced a number of changes to the current system which he hopes would revitalise our game. Here is his full statement, as reported in the Evening Times;
“We are holding our quarterly general meeting of all 12 member clubs a week on Monday, and we will be looking at the overall picture within Scottish football,
“Calendar issues, such as a winter break and an earlier league start, will be discussed but they won’t be the only thing on the agenda.
“There will be a wide range of proposals, including the governance of Scottish football, the future of youth football and league reconstruction.
“We are very much looking at ripping up what we’ve got at the moment and replacing it with something better, rather than just tinkering with things.
“The proposals will be formally put in front of the clubs to vote on around the end of the calendar year.”
An inspiring ‘state of the nation’ style address, if there ever was.
There are several issues here that have long needed tackling in Scottish football. An earlier start to the season, so our teams are better prepared to compete in Europe has long been a must, as has a winter break which (despite the recent December snow) would presumably come in January as that is traditionally the time in the season when most fixtures are disrupted by the cold. Personally however I feel these are less pertinent and important issues than the matter of ‘league reconstruction’ and an overhauling of youth football. Winter breaks and season start dates are the ‘tinkering’ that Doncaster talks of. Real change must come where it really matters, and that is in the SPL and SFL structure and how best to promote the youth football that exists within it.
One key matter is to get rid of our long ridiculed ‘SPL split’, where the top six and bottom six teams break in half with five games to go. There are simply too many problems and inequalities surrounded by it. The possibility of a team in 7th finishing lower than a team in 6th while having accumulated more points is, for lack of another word, stupid. Introduced in order to create an acceptable amount of games in a twelve team league (44 being deemed too much) and to produce less games which are ‘dead rubber’ at the end of the season, the format has been criticised by several SPL managers, Craig Levein, Walter Smith and the aforementioned Jefferies among them. It simply doesn’t work.
Firstly, it does not necessarily produce less ‘dead rubber’ games, particularly in the ‘bottom six’. Teams from 7th-10th may not be involved in a relegation battle. That is eight games that automatically become nothing matches, especially when the teams have no chance of breaking into the top six of the league or competing for European places. Secondly, the inequality of home and away games, in that a team may face three trips to a rival instead of two in a season is a disaster, from the point of view of both the fans and the accounts managers. The thought for a team like Motherwell, who pay the bills with ticket sales with visits from the Old Firm, of only getting to play Rangers once at Fir Park in a season, is one that is financially crippling.
I also always found it a curious decision to promote possible title deciders between Rangers and Celtic, especially as the SPL once said that one of the Old Firm claiming championship victory at the ground of their fierce rival was one that would never happen again, after the infamous Rangers victory at Parkhead in 1999 (cue a picture of Hugh Dallas bleeding profusely). The split has always lead to an Old Firm clash in the last five games of the season and would almost always guarantee one in the future. The logic is somewhat backward.
So, Doncaster’s proposal would see Scottish football finally rid itself of this disastrous experiment and see it confined to the rubbish bin of football history alongside the Intertoto Cup, Aberdeen victories and Regi Blinker. But obviously all Scotland’s footballing problems would not be annihilated simply by abolishing the split. The lack of quality and the lack of excitement that comes with having a league that is dominated by the Old Firm will not be solved by pushing the format back to ten teams and this is where Doncaster’s ‘radical’ plans fail.
I agree that going back to ten teams is better than the current set up, but then anything would be. But ten teams is what we had in the mid-nineties and the league was no more competitive then than it is now. What is needed is a third way and we all know what that is. An expansion to sixteen or eighteen teams. Unfortunately, due to the teams unwillingness to give up the revenue attached to four home games against the Old Firm a season, and the Old Firm’s desire to hold on to four guaranteed games against each other for TV money, this expansion where teams would only play each other twice a season, remains a pipe dream.
It is this stubbornness that is now holding Scottish football back. Obviously the game needs money, and the clubs need ticket sales to survive, but I feel that we have now reached the point where we are wringing the last few pennies from the current system, before the collapse of the game all together. A league expansion, if the clubs could be convinced to abandon their short-termism, is how the game must be reinvigorated and it could be reinvigorated on our own terms. It won’t be forced, which will happen eventually. The stadiums are emptying, and we are now on Sky Sports 4. There is no future in a set-up where Kilmarnock and Aberdeen could play each other six times in a season. It is mind-numblingly boring.
As well as breathing new life into the league format, a league expansion (with restructured regional leagues underneath, operating in a pyramid system instead of the closed coffin that currently is the SFL) could be a stepping stone to improving all competitions and even the national side. More players would be exposed to high level football, hopefully aiding their developement, with more teams flowing up and down from the league instead of the usual familiar faces. Less games in the league season would also give more prominence to the Scottish Cup, perhaps paving way to expanded qualifying rounds. Crucially as well, our teams, benefitting from a less cramped fixture less would have more time to prepare for European games.
I am not naive. I do not think that expanding the league to sixteen or eighteen teams would automatically turn the SPL into the English Premier League or La Liga, but it would give the game new opportunity to connect to its own fans, in this country, who turn to these leagues in search of quality and excitement that our own current set up just cannot offer them.
Obviously real long term, systematic change must come from the country’s youth infrastructure and Doncaster does plan to address this. The idea to put youth teams from Celtic, Rangers, Hibs and Hearts into the lower leagues of Scottish football or possibly an SPL 2 has been considered and is, I admit, progressive, forward thinking and ultimately worth a try. But I do think there are problems. I fail to see how these teams would, without a chance of promotion to top tier football, still be anything more than simply ‘reserve’ teams. Other fans of small clubs may think that this devalues lower league football, and the lower league clubs themselves would have to be consulted on this issue. It is something that we discussed on a previous Scheidtcast and we came to the conclusion that for cultural reasons it may just not work in this country.
I believe an alternative to these ‘B’ teams may be a more prominent Youth Cup, perhaps in place of the League Cup, which is surely past its sell by date. The set up could remain the same, but teams would only be allowed to field a certain amount of players over 23 or 21. Essentially the competition would remain the same, as many teams field weakened sides in this competition anyway, but it would remove the stigma that no one cares about the League Cup as it would no longer seem like teams are fielding a weakened side just because they can. Youth players would get more games in the public eye, and a chance to win something that is considered more competitive than just a reserve game ( I also believe this idea should be used in England, where their league cup is treated with more disdain by the big teams than it is here).
Change at youth level will ultimately be made by teams being encouraged to spend part of their profit on it. I believe that if the league was to be expanded and the teams could be convinced to stop chasing the Old Firm pay off, they could also be encouraged to start spending a sizeable amount of money on youth developement. It is, of course, the only way to real, sustainable improvement. Part of the reason our game lies in the tatters it is now is because teams of the 90s spent money on player wages they could ill afford, rather than investing in youth and bringing through young, locally trained players. Imagine where our game may now be if this had been the case.
Doncaster needs to think carefully when he uses the term ‘radical’. He doesn’t want to get our hopes up. Even this ‘tinkering’ still has to be voted on and with an 11-1 majority needed in the SPL, these small changes still may not go through. Perhaps they should change the voting system. Now that would be truly radical.