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