13 April ~ Motherwell travel to Celtic tonight for the second time this season, but it won’t be the last. Thanks to the Scottish Premier League’s remarkably pointless innovation of splitting the league in two with five games to go, Motherwell have been allocated a third visit to Parkhead on May Day. The SPL rules guarantee “so far as reasonably practicable” that teams will play an equal number of home and away fixtures, but the Lanarkshire club will end up with 18 home games and 20 away, and has announced that it will exhaust “all avenues of protest” to complain about the lopsided allocation. Expect to see manager Craig Brown chained to the gates of Hampden Park any day now.

Motherwell estimate that by playing Celtic only once at home this season, they will lose £200,000 in match day income, because in the SPL home clubs keep their own gate receipts. They’re not the only unhappy team, although St Mirren – who will travel to relegation rivals Falkirk also for the third time – are less worried about lost gate revenue than they are about the inequality of competition. Chairman Stewart Gilmour won’t bother to complain, however. “It’s a waste of energy,” he said, presumably used to dealing with the league’s officials. Oh hang on, he’s on the SPL board of directors himself, so he knows only too well the pointlessness of an appeal at this stage of the season.

The complaints ring hollow because both clubs are as aware as the rest of the SPL’s 12 teams that this unsatisfactory end to the season is always a likelihood under the current unwieldy and heavily criticised system. The split wouldn’t exist if the clubs hadn’t voted for it in the first place, but it’s symptomatic of the ailing state of the Scottish domestic game that no one can see a way out. Any alternative plan works against the short-term financial interests of the SPL member clubs.

A 44-game season, with each team playing the other four times, is deemed too many matches. Expanding to a 14-team league and playing opponents three times would make for a 39-game season, but then there’d still be the inequality problem of some teams only playing Rangers or Celtic once at home. Furthermore, the loss of even one of the four Old Firm derby games would diminish the value of the SPL’s television contract. If you expand the league to 18 teams, that problem is doubled – only two Glasgow derbies a season. Never mind that the wealth from travelling fans of the Glasgow teams would be spread across the country’s financially beleaguered clubs and that the allocation of games would be absolutely equal.

An 18-team SPL would also make it more likely that a third or fourth championship contender could re-emerge in Scottish football and finally break the Old Firm throttlehold. If potentially resurgent teams like Hearts, Aberdeen or Dundee United only play the two Glasgow giants a combined total of four times over a 34-game season, the points gap will narrow in the top half of the table. A more competitive league should, in the long term, be healthier for the development of the game in Scotland, and subsequently more marketable too. But despite the SPL mission statement’s intention to “build a league competition with standing and recognition throughout Europe” (I’m sure there’s not a soul in Spain or Italy who isn’t riveted by this season’s finish), it’s hard to pinpoint any measures the SPL has taken to even start aiming for such a grandiose goal.

The league has at least successfully fulfilled another clause in its mission statement, with the pledge to “represent and safeguard the interests of its members”. That’s been achieved thanks to the single direct relegation slot and the resistance to expansion. While it’s true that six extra teams would initially dilute the top flight’s quality of play, there surely has to be a willingness to countenance some short-term sacrifice in the wider interests of the domestic game. But unless teams like Motherwell have the guts to revolt out of more than pure self-interest, nothing will ever change.

And so, with stupefying predictability, Rangers will take another title by more points than anyone can be bothered to count. Even if they’re too broke to compete seriously in Europe, Rangers and Celtic will perpetually dominate a moribund league and fail to fire the interest of more than a restricted minority of cyclically celebrating fans. Meanwhile, exporting a dynamic league to a wider audience will remain a lofty aspiration stuck inside a verbose mission statement. Ian Plenderleith

Comments (10)
Comment by AMMS 2010-04-13 13:03:47

I pretty much agree with all of this piece with the exception of the first sentence of the last paragraph. I not sure that was at all predictable at the start, or even halfway through the season and certainly hasn't been the case in recent seasons. But apart from that spot on.

Comment by The Exploding Vole 2010-04-13 13:43:39

Adding weight to Ian's arugment, I suspect most SPL fans would rather see a wider variety of opposition than the same teams two or three times a season. But of course, the likes of Ross County or Raith couldn't possibly be expected to hold their own against SPL opposition ...

Comment by Bill Bones 2010-04-13 14:39:46

Good piece, an 18 team league would seem to be the way forward, and as TEV says it would probably have the support of most SPL fans. But let's be honest, it's doubtful if an 18 team league would aid a non-OF title challenge. Dundee Utd, Hibs or whoever are much more likely to drop points away to one of the potential 6 "newcomers" than the OF. Scottish football has never adequately solved the (intractable?) problem of having two teams are who massively bigger than the rest.

In defence of the split, it does sometimes work. Last season there was only 1 game that involved two sides with nothing to play for. But when the maths doesn't work out you get the issues that Motherwell now face(ie budgeting for 19 home games and only playing 18, the last two of which are on TV on a Sunday at 16.15 and at 19.45 on the same evening as a Genral Eletion).

Comment by kururutz 2010-04-14 03:33:12

I do not think that Scotland has the quality to support an 18-team league. For a less than perfect comparison, Israel just expanded from 12 teams to sixteen and 5 of the 6 newcomers are not up to standard and get trashed every week by (not too big) local giants. You could see a similar situation with the scottish first div. Also, a 34 game season means less revenue. A 14 team league whereby after 26 games the league is split in promotion and relegation groups of seven teams each would mean 38 matches (19h 19a) for everyone. Also, halving points at the end of the first half would make it interesting for a bit longer, any thoughts?

Comment by bruno glanvilla 2010-04-14 07:57:42

the teams who have, in recent seasons, been promoted to the SPL from the SPL 1 have all retained their positions and comfortably avoided relegation. this year, st johnstone are comfortable in 7th and thumped 4 past rangers last week.

similarly, although inverness may be the first to buck the trend, the relegated spl teams have all struggled to mid-table mediocrity in their first seasons in the lower league. from a sporting perspective, there is not a big difference in quality between teams like falkirk, st mirren, kilmarnock at the bottom of the spl and the teams in the top half of spl1, like caley thistle, dundee, qos.

recent seasons results in the sfa cup have shown this.

Comment by bruno glanvilla 2010-04-14 08:54:10

sorry - above comments should state sfl1 where i say spl1.

Comment by Insert witty username 2010-04-14 12:58:44

The Scottish football authorities don't seem to be very familiar with the phrase "if it ain't broke, don't fix it".

Comment by sudkurve 2010-04-14 15:54:07

Scottish fitba has become dreadfully boring and radical change is required.Even many rangers fans are becoming apathetic,how can you get too excited when there has been no challenge.
Further down the league apathy reigns supreme with only Dundee Utd fans excited.
There is a small interest in who gets relegated but I sense the likes of Killie,St Mirren and Falkirk fans would get much more enjoyment playing in Div 1.
Aberdeen's crowds are dwindling as low as 7500,things are bad at that great club.
Summer football and an 18 team top league for starters.

Comment by Broken Clock 2010-04-16 15:35:25

Sixteen team league would give 30 games.
Add a "SPL Cup" competition with four groups of four (H&A, seeded as per last seasons finishing positions) feeding into a two-legged semi-final (drawn from hat) then a final at Hampden.
That gives 30 SPL & 6-9 SPL Cup games to go with the SFA Cup and SFL Cup games.

Comment by kbmac 2010-04-19 15:19:01

The old First Division was 18 clubs for years but it was felt that there were too many meaningles fixtures in the second half of the season. Since 1975 it has been more or less constant change with a 10-team SPL then a twelve-team SPL with 44 games, seasons with no relegation as the league expanded (or Motherwell struggled) the current bizzarre split with 5 games to play. Old Firm dominance has been pretty constant throughout but there is no doubt it has got worse. Aberdeen must have been the last non-OF team to win the league but that must have been a long, long time ago. The bottom six in the SPL and the top six in the SFL1 are of a similar standard as pointed out by bruno glanvilla (brilliant moniker btw. Is it a tribute to Brian Glanville?)so the league would probably be quite competetive in itself but OF muscle is such that they would continue their habit of preventing any real competition from emerging by buying up any half-decent players emerging through other clubs. The irony is that the clubs are terrified to lose the money SPL and potentially two OF visits each brings but in gact are all losing money hand over fist. Just a bad joke really.

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