Steve Menary examines the possibility of a Scottish Premier League Two and the ramifications it could have
Does Scotland need a second premier league? The Scottish Premier League (SPL) was formed as a protectionist dash to ring-fence cash and crush rumours that the Old Firm would play elsewhere. Now, clubs in the first division of the Scottish Football League (SFL) want even more protection.
The drive for an SPL2 came from the 2006 Time for Change report put together by SFL1 clubs led by Livingston owner Pearse Flynn and supported by teams such as Hamilton and Clyde. Hamilton secretary Scott Struthers said: “Hamilton will support options that will benefit the game and the clubs. It is only natural each club finds their own level to play at. There are clearly clubs within the SFL who do have better stadia facilities and infrastructure. For the most part, these clubs are located within the present SFL1.”
The new plans would still see ten clubs in the SPL2, but only the bottom side would be relegated. The ninth-placed side would play off against the runners-up from the division below – but only if that club met new criteria, including a stadium with 3,000 seats. SPL2 members also need pitch protection – though not necessarily under-soil heating – and must field reserve and under-19 teams and provide approved youth-development programmes.
James Proctor, chair of Raith Rovers’ supporters’ trust and Scottish representative of fans’ body Supporters Direct, said: “The structure of the game is vital to the health of the industry. We should be opening the game up not introducing protectionist policies that will strangle and diminish football.”
The SPL and the SFL1 breakaway want to head off opposition by introducing a pyramid below the Third Division. SPL chairman Lex Gold says: “Our clubs are sensitive to the impact a development of this nature could have on the remaining SFL clubs and the opportunity for wider restructuring below a new top flight.” Regular promotion into the SFL would allow ambitious non-League clubs to try to emulate Inverness – currently in the SPL – and Gretna instead of waiting for the ad hoc vacancies. Inverness progressed with funding from a local construction magnate, David Sutherland, while Gretna shot up the leagues and into the Scottish Cup final on Brookes Mileson’s millions.
Other lower-league SFL clubs are not so lucky and view an SPL2 as a death knell. “The whole of Scottish football needs change but that’s not the same as self- preservation,” says Derek Shewan, chairman of Elgin City, who entered the SFL six years ago. “This is much to the detriment of Scottish football and the grassroots and they are alienating the whole of football. Apart from Queens Park, who play at Hampden, there’s practically no club in the bottom two leagues with anything like a 3,000-seat ground.”
Shewan reckons adding 2,500 more seats to the existing 500 at Elgin’s Borough Briggs Stadium could cost £1.5 million – and he has a better idea than most. Shewan is a director of Robertson Group, a £160 million turnover building firm based in Elgin. With his club in trouble, Shewan persuaded his boss Bill Robertson to put in £286,000 to wipe out the club’s debts, but Robertson rarely attends games and says: “I put the money in to help out. I’ve no plans to be Brookes Mileson.”
With an average gate of around 400 and annual turnover of no more than £400,000, Elgin are in an invidious position replicated across the lower echelons of the SFL. Any club trying to find the cash for an upgrade will only be too aware of the fate that met Airdrieonians, when they tried to meet original SPL criteria of a 10,000-seat ground: Scottish football lost one of it most distinctive names. Airdrie re-entered under a new name and are, coincidentally, in Division One, but that episode will scare many lower-league SFL sides. “What incentive have I got?” says Shewan. “The only way to survive is to get your fan base back and that’s not going to be if the greatest ambition you have is no higher than a new SFL1 or whatever they end up calling the second division.”
From WSC 236 October 2006. What was happening this month