Reform is on the agenda in Scotland – but that’s nothing new. Dianne Millen takes a sceptical look at the latest proposals on restructuring the divisions and introducing promotion from non-League

 In December George Peat, chairman of the Scottish Football Association, announced the “biggest and most thorough investigation yet” into the structure and governance of football in the country. Coming just a few days before the final meeting of the arbitration panel convened to rule on the 2006 proposal for a break­away “SPL2”, the proposals took a low-key tone, with SFA chief executive Gordon Smith explaining: “We’re not necessarily making major changes – we’re just looking to see whether if, when you bring together all the stakeholders that are involved within the game, whether there are ideas that could be put forward.” 

But while the talk was all of “debate” and “think tanks”, there may be steel behind the smiles and Santa hats. Peat also made clear that the introduction of a pyramid structure allowing promotion and relegation between the current Third Division and three regional leagues sitting underneath is high on the SFA’s agenda. More radical still is the idea of amalgamating the SPL and SFL into a single league body, with Peat stating bluntly that “it is my opinion that there is no need for two league organisations”.

While he emphasised that the proposals were not intended as a riposte to SPL2, much may depend on the outcome of the arbitration panel (which had not been published when we went to press). Many believe that its decision on the notice required by any clubs breaking away and their compensation payments to the SFL will favour the SPL. If so, its members could be asked to vote immediately on the admission of the new members, which requires an 11-1 majority – and, in theory, the new league could start next August.

While such a rapid transformation is unlikely, support is growing for some form of restructuring and these proposals may have some momentum behind them. Last year’s election of Annan Athletic to Gretna’s league spot, from a strong field, highlighted how difficult it is for small clubs to get a foot in the door. Although many are well enough run and supported to compete in the lower leagues, they must wait for a rare vacancy.

SPL managers Gordon Strachan and Jim Jefferies have also called for expansion of the top flight to reduce the number of repeat visits to familiar grounds and alleviate the resulting boredom. Various embarrassing legal challenges to relegation in recent years have also suggested a need for reform, and two high-profile projects – the SFA’s root-and-branch review of youth football in 2004, and the Scottish Parliament’s inquiry into football governance a year later – have firmly endorsed the pyramid concept.

However, it may take more than a think tank to convince fans, most of whom want to see some sort of shake-up, that there will be real change this time. After all, ­discussions about restructuring Scottish football are about as unusual as overhyped Old Firm games, with numerous unsuccessful attempts at reform of the league and the governing bodies. Whatever proposal is eventually supported this time is most likely to be driven by finance. Several SFL clubs are rumoured to be in difficulties, a view implicitly acknowledged by the SFA when they paid out £300,000 to member clubs in December, earlier than planned. Concern has also been expressed that SPL2 risks smaller clubs bankrupting themselves to meet the stadium criteria, and about a withering-away of a rump of clubs with no real chance of making it to either of the top divisions. A well-run pyramid structure could alleviate this, as could the economies of scale from merged league management structures.

Ultimately, if restructuring can infuse the league with a refreshed sense of competition, variety and fairness, all the clubs will have a better chance of beating the credit crunch. Any sort of institutional change will inevitably face resistance and Peat and Smith’s softly-softly approach may be the best way to bring the blazers along. But given the challenges facing all the Scottish clubs, it is hard to argue with Fraser Wishart of PFA Scotland when he says: “The only way [the consultation] will really make a difference is if people’s views are taken on board and actually adopted.” The game now needs a firm direction supported by action and a willingness to set aside vested interests. If this latest review creates nothing but consultation papers and soundbites, it will be just another missed opportunity.

From WSC 264 February 2009

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