Break for the border

Things could be about to change in Scottish football, as Gary Oliver analyses what the future holds for the SPL

Tony Blair may have no intention of repealing trade union legislation, but that has not prevented ten Scots hankering for a closed shop. And far from being Old Labour dinosaurs, these protectionists are the thrusting ‘entrepreneurs’ who chair Scotland’s Premier Division clubs: in the crusade to create an autonomous Premiership, their latest threat is to sever all links with the Scottish Football League and dispense with promotion and relegation.

It was back in September that each of the current Top Ten gave notice of their intention to resign from the Scottish Football League; from next season, satellite television was to bankroll a football nirvana. No ifs, no buts: spokesman Lex Gold of Hibernian waved a glossy report and made clear, albeit in his mellifluous tones, that the group’s blueprint for change was for “clarification, not consultation”.

Yet after several months of considerable hot air but little tangible progress, it began to look as though Mr Gold had brandished the most worthless sheaf of papers since Neville Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement. The votes of the Premier Division, supported by Division One quislings Dundee and Raith Rovers, had ensured that a Special General Meeting approved the Ten’s ‘retiral’ from the SFL. But when in December the League Management Committee again split and failed to ratify that decision, the toys came hurtling out of the prams.

Lex & co withdrew their proposed support package of £1.3 million per season; the Premier clubs also made plain that, unless the rump of the SFL came back grovelling, they would cordon off the top division. Yet a hermetically sealed league may have always been the rebels’ intention. There has never been any impediment to negotiating improved commercial deals through the SFL; similarly, for all the Ten’s lofty talk of wishing to develop young talent, I’m unaware of a Scottish League rule expressly prohibiting such an activity.

In a rebellion clearly prompted by avarice rather than altruism, such unconvincing arguments for autonomy have always implied an alternative agenda: the creation of a league in which success is handsomely rewarded but, even more important, where failure goes largely unpunished.

Dipping the top division in aspic would simply take this philosophy to its (il)logical conclusion. The Premier clubs had already tried, unilaterally, to abandon this season’s play-off; magnanimously, they intimated that the First Division champions might be allowed in, subject to whatever vague and arbitrary criteria were deemed appropriate. Consequently, since the opening weeks of the season it has been uncertain what, if anything, the First Division is currently playing for.

Those leading First Division clubs naturally were horrified by the Premier clubs’ threat to pull up the ladder. The chairmen of Dundee and Raith Rovers agonised in public over this latest threat to their investments; however, the resentment of both appeared to stem from not receiving an invitation rather than any principled objection to the ethos of the breakaway. It was therefore assumed that, having driven a wedge between the larger provincial clubs, the entire First Division would immediately come to heel. But the group instead swaggered from a meeting in Paisley, demanding an immediate 12-club top division and compensation payments to the SFL of £50 million over 20 years – not exactly the compliant response the Top Ten had expected.

It would be interesting to eavesdrop on the reactions of, for example, Tom Boyd and Darren Jackson should their one and only opportunity to play in a World Cup finals be sacrificed by Fergus McCann on the altar of Celtic’s share price. Similarly, one wonders for how long David Weir might remain loyal to Hearts were his chairman Chris Robinson to veto the player’s selection this summer.

Neither did Lex Gold think there was much likelihood of the SFA denying Premiership entry to UEFA competitions. “The Europeans can come and sample the delights of Brockville,” he sneered. And for his punchline Lex claimed, with no hint of irony, that any obstruction by the SFA would constitute “restraint of trade” – a curious argument from one currently threatening to rebuff the First Division.

This may all prove hypothetical. But should the stand-off continue, the welfare of Scottishfootball is much more dependent upon maintaining meritocratic leagues than avoiding adverse results during France ’98 or in next season’s Champions League qualifiers (and could, say, Airdrie possibly be worse ambassadors than Rangers?). The Premier Division has had months to make its case and muster support. But the rebel group’s threat to form a self-preservation society has now shattered what little credibility it had.

Lex Gold launched the Top Ten breakaway under the slogan, A Brighter Future. But he and his chums continue to leave Scottish fans in the dark over where the game is heading.

From WSC 132 February 1998. What was happening this month