Tuesday 28 April ~
Scotland has one of the very few leagues in Europe to divide its season into two stages. This alone is reason enough for critics to want rid of it but I've become a convert to the SPL split, which took place last week. After all 12 teams have played each other three times, the league divides into two mini-leagues. A final set of fixtures is then drawn up in which the teams inside the top six and bottom six play each other once more to bring the season to a close. It allows a 12-team league to operate without an excessive number of games, with the secondary effect that it maintains interest for as many teams as possible right up until the season ends.
Last week, despite the title and relegation issues being as tight as ever, the Hibs and Motherwell games were also a big source of media interest as they determined who would get inside the top six and maintain their European hopes for a few more weeks. As it turned out Hibs were the winners while Motherwell now face seeing their season drift to an uneventful end – but no system can ever eradicate completely meaningless games for mid-table sides.
No matter how good the intentions of the fixture crunchers, the nature of the split means that ultimate parity is virtually impossible. The aim is for all teams to play the same amount of home and away games in total, 19 each, but in order for this to happen compromises have to be made. This time around it appears that Celtic are the main casualty as they face third-placed Hearts for a third time away from home while Rangers have an extra home game against the same opponents. Celtic have made a formal complaint to the SPL, but they could have tried instead to offer another set of fixtures that would prove fairer. One suspects that their lack of suggestions proves that a better arrangement couldn't be produced.
The alternatives would be to either abandon the split system and play six more league games a year or reconfigure the number of teams in the league. Increasing the number of matches would be met with strong opposition by the Old Firm whose pre-Christmas European programme would be hindered by fixture congestion; reverting to a ten-team league playing 36 games – or increasing to 16 or 18 teams playing each other twice a season – would be met by similar protest from the other clubs, eager not to risk losing their SPL status or reduce their share of TV money. Either way the SPL can’t win. While the current setup isn’t without fault, it certainly doesn’t deserve the barracking it’s currently receiving in Scotland from some managers, players and supporters. Alistair Gilbert