Concern bottom divisions will be cut loose
14 June ~ An acronym war appeared to find a compromise on Wednesday when the Scottish Football League (SFL) merged with the Scottish Premier League (SPL). The 30 SFL clubs forming the three tiers below the top flight voted to join the 12 SPL clubs in a single body (Rangers, associate members after liquidation, had no say). However, no one was lamenting the end of the 15-year-old SPL or celebrating the "ease of governance". The feeling is that the SFL had to surrender 123 years of history to allow roughly 20 of its smaller clubs the merest grip on national football.
At a pathos-heavy Hampden press conference SFL president Jim Ballantyne declared this wasn't a merger but an SPL takeover. Chief executive David Longmuir, looking like a man so sick of being stabbed in the back he'd decided to take the bullet to the chest, pointed out his organisation had three of the four words in the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) – the new body's name.
That's all it got. Longmuir, with SPL chief executive Neil Doncaster, is a contender to run the SPFL. So he insisted this move, despite providing few tangible differences for the fans, was "a means to an end". That end is achieving the five core principles drawn from the three-year-old McLeish Report into the state of the Scottish game: A single league body, fairer financial distribution, introduction of play-offs, parachute payments and a pyramid system.
Objective observers would applaud these aims and, on the surface, they're now achieved. However, this vote was the endgame in an internal SFL war between the First Division clubs, happy with the SPL's plans to merge, and the two Divisions below, who recently opposed the proposal over the lack of information or money trickling down to their level. No one is sure how big the financial pot will be and everyone's sure the First Division clubs, as were, will catch by far the most "parachutes".
Play-offs between the second and top tiers will be introduced next season. However, the First Division clubs had last month threatened to break away from the SFL and form an SPL2 if Wednesday's ,eating didn't provide the 22 "Yes" votes required to merge (it got 23). The play-off is no more than a "welcome aboard" present from a cartel needing new blood in the absence of Rangers.
Clubs such as East Stirlingshire and Forfar Athletic feel ambushed. On Tuesday the one body older than the SFL, the Scottish Football Association (SFA), approved plans to form a Lowland League by 2014-15. It'll consist of the biggest clubs from junior football and the East and South of Scotland senior leagues. Its champion will have a play-off against their Highland League counterpart for a place in the bottom rung of the SPFL.
Aside from the direct threat of relegation through a new trap door, most of the SFL Third and Second Division clubs will regard this as creeping regionalisation. There's concern that the moment Rangers return to the top flight the bottom two tiers will be jettisoned from the national League of a country so small it's a miracle it can support more than a handful of full-time clubs. The recent meltdowns of Hearts and Dunfermline are proof that it can't.
Since it went from ten to 12 League members in 1891, Scottish football has always been restructuring. The SPL was merely the formalising of 1975's Premier Division, a successful SFL attempt to provide Rangers and Celtic with richer scenery for their private contest. When Clydebank, Gretna, Dundee, Livingston and Airdrie experienced financial disaster in the last decade the SPL carried on regardless, providing two European finalists and regular Champions League representation. But when Rangers imploded it took precisely one year for Scottish football to decide its divided, top-heavy framework must go. It just happens to coincide with the moment one of its two pillars stands in the lower leagues. Alex Anderson