Split in league increases chances of teams “playing out” results
22 May ~ Aside from guaranteeing top-flight survival, Saturday’s wins for Kilmarnock and Ross County killed all talk of them deliberately drawing with each other this weekend. This would have been to the mutual exclusion of Motherwell, only condemned to the SPFL Premiership relegation play-off spot by Saturday’s defeat at St Mirren. Last week, still just three points from safety, Killie and County had to deny they would engage in a “carve up” in the final round of matches.
Scotland hasn’t known top-level match-fixing scandals such as hit England in the 1960s, the Bundesliga in the 1970s and Serie A whenever. But the concern wasn’t over two or three players clandestinely gaining from betting syndicates. Rather it was precisely because all of Scotland knew Motherwell finishing 11th suited absolutely everyone involved with Kilmarnock and Ross County. And they play in a league engulfed in confusingly conflicting headlines about money and gambling.
County manager Jim McIntyre and Killie players Josh Magennis and Mark Connolly last Tuesday assured BBC Scotland they wanted to win every game. The next day, the SPFL unveiled bookmakers Ladbrokes as their new sponsor. A day later, the SFA cited Partick Thistle midfielder Steven Lawless for 513 alleged cases of betting on other football matches. On the same day Aberdeen – the second-best team in the country – announced 11 player departures, and that evening agent Raymond Sparkes confirmed on Radio Scotland that player wages were routinely halved if a club was relegated from the top flight. He added that, outside the Old Firm, £1,000 per week was a great wage in Scotland.
Premiership players are middle-low earners in an already precarious trade. Money must naturally affect their motivations. In seeking to prove his team always go out to win, Magennis pointed out the league awards increased prize money per higher place finished. This is largely financed by broadcasters who want the raw emotion of titles, European places, promotions and relegations secured at the latest possible moment. Financial implications, good or bad, always embellish the drama.
This need to manufacture excitement led to Scotland’s top-flight split. Since 2000-01, the top and bottom divide into two mini-leagues of six for the last five games of the season. Those competing for Europe and the title will be in direct opposition as well as those fighting relegation. Sometimes these issues are settled pre-split anyway but when they aren’t, it increases the likelihood of two teams playing out a result to the detriment of a third and even a fourth.
On the last day of the 2004-05 SPL season, Rangers went 1-0 up at Hibs on the hour mark, then both sides let the game peter out. A goal for Hibs would ruin Rangers’ chances of snatching the title from leaders Celtic, unexpectedly losing at Motherwell; another goal for Rangers would threaten Hibs European qualification, on goal difference from an Aberdeen side not racking up a big score.
Referees cannot reliably gauge, far less punish, the amount of effort a team puts in. A few weeks ago Barcelona, already 8-0 up, refused to attack Cordoba in the last few minutes of their clash with La Liga’s bottom club. They didn’t want to inflict more pain on a relegated opponent. It’s also become the norm for teams who accidentally score when sportingly returning the ball to an opponent to allow that opposition to walk in a goal. These undeniable instances of non-effort are applauded by the football world, almost as warmly as Motherwell’s loss at St Mirren was welcomed by the very administrators who once wanted everything to go to the wire. Alex Anderson