Division of labour

The Scottish First Division doesn't deserve its bad reputation, says Paul Hutton

This time of year is a nervous one for many supporters, particularly, it would seem, if your team is facing possible relegation to Scotland’s First Division. Most journalists in Scotland, and a worrying number of supporters, seem to view the First Division in the same way that mediaeval monks regarded strange lands with funny customs.

For while tabloid journalists talk of the Scottish Premier Division in terms of ‘élite’ without any sense of irony, the First Division might as well have ‘Here Be Monsters’ stamped on the fixture list. Talk is always of clubs ‘surviving’ the drop, as if they are, sensitive artists at risk from the rough, jealous working-class types they’ll encounter further down. This is probably in part responsible for the suggestion that, if a Scottish Super League comes about, relegation will be scrapped for a couple of years. They’re planning, no doubt, to give the top ten a chance to work out the finer points of the game untroubled by oiks. The truth, of course, isn’t quite so simple.

Supporters of relegated Premier League teams find that there really isn’t that much of a gulf between the divisions. This is hardly surprising – of the ten teams in this year’s First Division, only four haven’t spent some of the 90s in the Premier League, all of the other six having tasted the excitement and glory involved in getting cuffed by the Old Firm. And of the teams in the Premier, four of them have ‘endured’ the lower reaches since 1990. And it seems to have done Dundee United (currently 3rd) and Dunfermline (5th) no harm at all – both were First Division teams last season and seem to be in rude health at the moment.

And, though we shouldn’t read too much into cup results, they don’t exactly suggest that the Premier League clubs are miles ahead – Falkirk have beaten three Premier sides on their way to this year’s final, and Airdrie have managed two final appearances in the last 5 years.

Admittedly, not all of the teams in the division are pushing for promotion. East Fife were clearly out of their depth this season, managing only one win in their entire League campaign, and it’s difficult to see Stirling Albion having to worry about accommodating Old Firm crowds in the near future. The two promoted from the Second Division for next season – Ayr and Hamilton – will probably start as firm favourites for the drop – but then they do every year.

A lot of faith is being put in Clyde and Livingston – who’ve moved to new towns and attract bigger than average crowds – and the former Highland League clubs. Inverness Caledonian Thistle (a name that long could only be the result of a peace settlement) and Ross County both deserved a chance at League football, but then so did any other non league club in Scotland.

There seems to be an expectation that these four clubs should be in the First, pushing for a Premier place. This rather ignores the fact that the Caley Thistle (that’s better) have taken three years to get out of the Third, and Ross County are still fighting to do it. Clyde’s ‘soccer academy’ has yet to really produce much in the way of exciting young talent, and it’s difficult not to think that Livingston’s bubble is going to burst in the next couple of seasons. If these teams are coming up on the rails, they’re doing it pretty slowly.

The First Division is an odd sort of buffer zone, populated with clubs that are perfectly capable of reaching the Premier, and clubs that have managed to reached these dizzy heights and will fall back down to the Second after a couple of seasons.

Making either jump on a permanent basis seems to be the big problem. Clubs promoted from the First seem to manage two seasons in the Premier before being relegated, and teams at the lower end have to make the decision of whether to really push the envelope and go full-time (most clubs in Scotland remain part-time). St Johnstone look like they’ve managed the trick by using the revolutionary training method of coming back in the afternoons for more work, but then they also find themselves being one of only a couple of clubs in Scotland who’s bank balance is in the black.

If there are really any dragons in the First Division, they’re carrying bank statements. At the moment, something like 85% of the TV and sponsorship money in Scotland stays within the Premier League. As long as that remains the case, it’s difficult to see a club being promoted from the First being able to manage a sustained push at the higher level or a club moving up from the Second going full-time and running straight through it into the promised land.

And I’m sure someone can explain how a Super League which suspends relegation for two seasons will help matters, but to supporters of First Division clubs, myself included, it just looks like the best way of ensuring that it becomes the wasteland that it’s often made out to be.

From WSC 124 June 1997. What was happening this month