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Scottish League merger brings more uncertainty

Concern bottom divisions will be cut loose

icon spfl14 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

On the subject...

Comment on 14-06-2013 13:46:24 by AMMS #809068
For all it's got more than a touch of re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic about it and undoubtedly come about through the basic Scottish football currency of extortion and blackmail I still hope this might prove a turning point for the domestic game.
Little important will change immediately but if the 'mid-sized' Scottish clubs that typically yo-yo between the old SPL and SFL1 can remain united they could force serious league reconstruction and financial redistribution through in a year or two time. Although they've demonstrated the same dedication to self-interest of late that was previously the preserve of the bigger clubs so perhaps we'll learn nothing.

Good piece though.
Comment on 15-06-2013 14:17:06 by Alex Anderson #809294
Cheers, AMMS

Yeah, I'm actually quite happy the pyramid will finally arrive and, as a Rangers fan, I'm delighted there was no change to the 12-10-10-10 structure. We want to "serve our time" in a way that even the professional conspiracy theorists will see as being fair (ie,working up through the same number and size of Divisions through which we "fell").

But, by that same light, I find it a bit embarrassing for our country's game, that all these changes which the Scottish domestic scene has required for many years were pushed through within 365 days of liquidation proceedings beginning for Rangers Oldco (The SFL even voted to off itself on the very same date - 12th June - as our CVA was knocked back by HMRC).

And while it's been obvious for decades that the smallest part-time clubs perhaps do need to go into regional leagues - that some need to buck up their ideas if they're to properly earn their league status to the exclusion of more ambitious, better-run Highland and Junior league clubs - the last season has turned an affection I always had for the Queens Parks and Berwicks of the world into pure condescension-free respect.

Okay, Rangers were utterly rank for much of 2012-13 but the nous, work-rate and skill of our league opponents was phenomenal.

That, the warmth of our welcome in Larbert, Stirling, Angus etc, and the knowledge that the SFL has provided the landscape of so many of my happiest football memories, made me feel just plain sad at last week's death knell.
Comment on 15-06-2013 14:28:53 by Diable Rouge #809297
And that's the sole point that I would quibble over, in that East Stirling and Forfar "feeling ambushed" is just as much an expression of self-interest as any action the Old Firm or SFL1 may have taken over the years. It hardly serves as a demonstration of league depth to have the same clubs propping up the pyramid perennially, with the resultant microscopic attendance figures in the lower divisions, and as the demise of election to the English League have proven, many clubs who do fall through the trapdoor make rapid returns to the professional ranks.
Comment on 15-06-2013 17:04:46 by Stumpy Pepys #809322
Good piece.

But SPL and SFL are abbreviations, not acronyms.
Comment on 15-06-2013 21:12:33 by donedmundo #809401
You could pronounce them 'SPiL' and 'SuFuL'. That would make them acronyms. No? Oh well. Just a thought.
Comment on 16-06-2013 20:55:51 by jameswba #809601
Yes, interesting article there, Alex.

Clearly, there's a lot of politics involved in all this, but I share some of your instincts. For a start, watching football in a few central European countries has convinced me that a 12-team top division is just about right for a nation of Scotland's size. 16 clubs works well in the Czech Republic (which has nearly double the population) and it's been mooted for Scotland too, but, for a start I'm not sure how it would feed the addiction to the game up there, given that it would logically lead to only a 30-game season. (45
would surely be a bit weird).

Presumably the leagues below the present SFL are happy they're to be part of a pyramid(?) They can now 'look forward' to a creeping professionalisation of their game, something that can be both good and bad. One result of automatic promotion from the Conference in England was that traditional non-league 'big clubs' - the likes of Enfield, Altrincham, Kettering etc found it harder and harder to compete. Some brought the big, brash businessman, and his promises of 'League One in three years', onto their boards, with decidedly mixed results.

Great point there about the welcome in the 3rd division, and the performances of some of the teams. McCoist said a similar thing, didn't he? Said it with class and complete lack of condescension too. Obviously, now one of those clubs will be proved NOT to be good enough to stay in the SPFL - but at least they'll be able to hope to get back quickly, like Lincoln, Colchester, Darlington etc in the mid-late 80s.

Oddly enough, play-offs are the thing I'm least sure about. Not convinced the solution to Scotland's problems is more games of a 'do or die' nature. But we'll see.
Comment on 16-06-2013 21:48:45 by Duncan Gardner #809622
Good article Alex.

James- couldn't a 16 team division play a 37 match season (15x2 + 7), ie pretty much the same length as the most recent SPL?

Although I'd prefer 30 myself, with a December/ January break.
Comment on 17-06-2013 06:52:25 by jameswba #809697
Duncan, I like the 16-team, 30-game top division in the Czech league, for example. It leaves space in the calendar, seems to help player development and the depth of quality is just about there to sustain it. I'm not convinced the latter would be true of Scotland, but that's just an instinct. Some better qualified than me to comment think it could work.

And I'm averse to set-ups that give you an odd number of games. Whatever is chosen, play every team the same number of times, with equal numbers of home and away games. Slovakia has 12 teams and 33 games, 44 not being practical because of the long winter. But it's awful - one influencing factor in who wins the league can be whether (say) Zilina get two home games against Slovan, as opposed to just the one.
Comment on 17-06-2013 13:49:55 by Alex Anderson #809768
Absolutely, Camus. The Pyramid will mean no club can sit on their hands now, safe in the knowledge that their national league status is guaranteed. With the SPL coming at them from one side, the SFA from the other, the First Division clubs pounding them from above and the Formartine Uniteds and Spartans now ready to attack from below, I just felt it was an ambush – but, as you say, it was perhaps an ambush which was required and one which, for some of these 3rd and 2nd Div clubs, was deserved. I totally agree with you that those clubs who habitually made no effort to improve their stadium, attendances or team should be subject to direct competition from the non-league and even junior clubs with more ambition.

However, I’d be wary of judging the situation by size of club, size of crowd they draw (And, sorry to go on here - not in anyway having a pop at yourself - but it’s just something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. An overnight plummet down three divisions really does change your outlook!): Plenty larger clubs in Scotland, as in any other country, have sailed along the middle ground for years.

Dundee United’s historic overtaking of Dundee is an example of the wee cornershop with big ambition matching and trumping the small-minded assumptions of a once-grand high street chain. The length of time Hearts and Hibs have gone without winning the top league, never mind Hibs’ Scottish Cup record, is disgraceful when you consider Kilmarnock, both Dundee clubs and Aberdeen have all been champs since anyone in Edinburgh.

I started going to Ibrox in the late 70s, early 80s when anything over 15,000 was a decent crowd and we were refusing to “Break the bank” by offering John McLelland something like an extra hundred quid a month to stay and keep us challenging for our usual fourth place. Yes, the club had to pay for re-modelling Ibrox, but there was still a level of laziness at Rangers boardroom level then which no-one at East Stirlingshire or Arbroath would tolerate today. The Celts For Change campaign was, as much as anything else I could see through my blinkers, an expression of the dissatisfaction Celtic fans felt when they too through a decade of watching their club fail to speculate and thereby grossly underachieve just as mine had the previous decade.

What I discovered last season was that there IS a depth of talent and nous in the Third Division but, more than that, an authenticity of feeling and understanding for the game – all with no real need to be continually reaching for the stars - which few other countries in the world can offer at that level. We’re constantly told there are no real “characters” on the field these days well, jeeze, in terms of the league landscape we shouldn’t be too hasty to get rid of the likes of Queens Park. Amateur club in a Victorian strip, playing to hundreds, in the national stadium and still with the third-best Scottish Cup record in Scotland. Come on – that’s GORGEOUS! . Albion Rovers playing in a town with a population of 41,000 football nuts and about a dozen of them go to Cliftonhill. That is depth – but it’s a depth of character. So much of what we’re talking about in this whole debate is business acumen. It’s become the sport within the sport, the fiscal aspect. But there never was any financial sense in watching eleven men kick a ball about. That’s why it’s a beautiful thing to do.

Hell, we obviously need to play the game better but, as the Croatia result demonstrated, the ability is there – as much as anything else it’s a mind-set change which we require in Scotland. Infrastructure and league structure are massive factors but I feel we’re often too busy looking for something and someone to blame (I say this as someone who does just that on an hourly basis), that we’d rather have a fight with ourselves, dump someone or something, than appreciate what we have and make it better.

Until last season my default setting was always “we’re too small a country to have so many national league clubs”. Now I know we’re too small a country to have so many national league clubs if we want to ensure everyone’s in profit and working towards a 10,000 all-seater stadium. The finances-focused narrative arc only leads us to the realisation the floating dosh wants to watch Barca, Real, Man City and Chelsea on the telly more than it wants to watch even the Old Firm on its doorstep. There’s a danger we might get too “1960s Urban Planner” about this and eviscerate something which, while it absolutely needed to be changed, actually holds more of the essence of our game than we currently realise.

But hopefully these clubs have been on the go long enough to retain their character as they go into non-league life. Like ye say, Camus, it’s worked in England. It’ll just be strange to see the Spiders or the Shire as non-league when, really, I suppose they should have ceased to be “league” a long time ago.
Comment on 17-06-2013 14:10:34 by Alex Anderson #809776
Cheers, Stumpy and Donedmundo - but, sorry, speaking for Scottish football, I have to elevate SPL, SFL and SFA (as well as, for me, HMRC, CVA and PAYE) from the non-league world or abbreviations, even beyond the national championship that is acronyms. In recent times they've qualified for the Champions League that is expression - easily getting through the Group Stage of mere denotation and holding their own in the connotation knock-out stages with ...

Ye get the idea :-)

I'd say it's "Espee-elle" (as in "Espee-elle? Yer havin a laugh) and Esseffelle (as in "that's the one which always felt like it was indeed just an abbreviation so it's probably why they're the body which had to go").
Comment on 17-06-2013 15:23:13 by Alex Anderson #809803
Cheers, James, Duncan - Both your applications for posts at the SPFL are rejected before they even reach interview. All this "common sense" nonsense just wont stand.

You'll have to forgive me for laughing when Duncan instantly demonstrates he's a man who lives the Scottish game because his suggestion for number of matches per season involves algebraic equation-style brackets. This is what we've become in Scotland. This is what it's done to us.

Punters like me who, as kids, struggled for their Arithmetic O level, could now outwit Stephen Hawking with our Good Will Hunting-ish ability to describe how you get 34.189 league games each for 13 and a half clubs in a 15-month season, including a winter-break which features an international friendly tournament, and play-offs between second place in the East of Scotland League second tier and the SPL club which finishes in the bottom half, post-split, with more points than the champions of the top half. All live on ESPN,11am Sunday.

Then, of course, everyone has to play the Old Firm - 45 minutes at home, 2 hours away and aggregate injury time at Hampden ...

Exactly the same as yourselves, I'd be happy with the 30-game league season. We've got two or three cup competitions and we need to give the punters wallets as well as the international players legs a rest.

You're bang-on about the politics, James because that's what led us here to the same situation in the SPL as you refer to with Slovakia. But, of course, Scotland had to do it over a 38 game season, which included a split towards the end of the campaign so a 12-team league could supply 38 games for each club. So some top flight teams were playing an opponent three times away and just once at home.

Rangers and Celtic, of course, always ended up with an even split of home and away Old Firm derbies. Would have been interesting to see what happened if they'd ended up in separate halves of the table for once.

But it's all just embarrassing (especially when the team finishing seventh ends the season with more points than the team in sixth) and while it is the politics of the Old Firm which dictates all this insanity, when it comes to league structures, it became about making the number of times clubs can play the old firm the prize in itself.

The number of league games clubs can play each season was always a huge factor in any reconstruction negotiations but it has always been, in my lifetime, about having smaller league divisions with a greater number of league games. Nuts. This is what chairmen want (you're getting twice the number of Old Firm visits) but it hasn't been what the punters want for as long as I can remember.

The season Celtic won the European Cup they played 34 league games in an 18 team league. The fact I have to point out the number of teams in the league after telling you how many games a club played is strange to most countries, but not ours where, 20 years later, Rangers played 44 games while winning a 12-team top flight while the second tier had 12 teams playing 39 league games and the third tier featured 14 teams playing 39 games.

You're right, James - 45 games a season is totally weird, totally impractical and would be slightly embarrassing for us as a country - which is exactly why, upon review, you're ahead of Neil Doncaster in the running for the chief exec job ...

Salient point about the sudden introduction of a direct route for Scotland's Ketterings and Altrinchams to get into the league proper. For some of the non-league clubs it's almost taking away an excuse to be happy with their lot, to be kings of their own limited world. I'll be interested, particularly, to see how Scotland's junior clubs feel about the new Lowland League. Auchinleck, Irvine Meadow XI, Pollok etc - these clubs have bigger sized supports than a lot of league clubs but their culture is heavily based on winning or challenging regularly for the biggest league available to them.

It's a scaled-down version of the argument against the Old Firm moving to England - it's not so much that Newcastle and Sunderland haven't done anything for decades as the fact so many Rangers and Celtic punters feel a trophy of SOME description is guaranteed with the season ticket - they're more interested in short-term gloating than long-term improvement in overall standards of competition.
Comment on 17-06-2013 15:34:37 by Alex Anderson #809810
... oh and, yeah, play-offs. I don't like them either, James. The English version especially which allows teams finishing 6th to win promotion over a team finishing 3rd - that, to me, defeats the whole point of a league campaign.

I think they're okay when a straight head-to-head between the 2nd or 3rd bottom team and the side in the division below which finishes immediately outside the automatic promotion places but, even then, only in a situation where the league structures are going through some sort of, aherm, restructuring and a temporary compromise was required to ease the transition.

We have cup competitions for the falsely created do-or-die stuff and there's always plenty of last-day promotion or relegation drama through allowing a league campaign to run it's natural course.

Again, I'd say play-offs are one of those inventions which create excitement at the expense of sporting integrity - they get great crowds in England and Germany but it's a cheapening of the solid, season-long format which is supposed to be the bedrock of domestic football and I'm worried it's already creating a lust for ANY kind of excitement which will soon see Wembley needing to hold 300,000 for the championship play-off final if its to compensate for the wider downturn.

We've had play-offs in Scotland for a while now for the bottom two divisions. They're never at Hampden and they're still never sold-out.
Comment on 18-06-2013 14:07:29 by Alex Anderson #810242
... yup, the Juniors reneged (or perhaps all their secretaries were on holiday during the week-long window for applying):
Comment on 19-06-2013 10:04:55 by DuncanHRC #810617
"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."

Are you seriously suggesting these meltdowns are the result of Hearts and Dunfermline being full-time clubs?

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