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Debate rages over pyramid system in Scottish football

Graeme Macpherson on Thursday: In the immediate aftermath of Annan Athletic�s ascension into the Scottish Football League last week, a common theme emerged from the four clubs whose bids had been unsuccessful.

IN the immediate aftermath of Annan Athletic's ascension into the Scottish Football League last week, a common theme emerged from the four clubs whose bids had been unsuccessful.

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Indeed, had a tally been kept of the keywords uttered by the representatives of Preston Athletic, Edinburgh City, Spartans and Cove Rangers at Hampden last Thursday then "congratulations", "disappointed" and "jealousy" (from Spartans) would all have featured highly on that list.

The most popular phrase spoken, however, was "pyramid system". And little wonder. Opportunities for non-league clubs to earn promotion to the senior set-up are about as rare as a Scottish summer's day without rain. The vacancy filled by Annan arose from Gretna's well-documented financial meltdown.

Mercifully, if somewhat disappointingly for those non-league aspirants harbouring dreams of regular glamour away days at East Stirlingshire or Elgin, clubs taken over by eccentric millionaire benefactors who then suddenly withdraw their financial backing leading to said club's demise are thin on the ground.

It is not the way most ambitious non-league clubs would wish to progress in any case. "I'm quietly confident there will be a pyramid system sooner rather than later and what we've got to do is build a team that's strong enough to get there on merit," said Andrew Waddell, Preston Athletic chairman. "It's better than waiting on dead men's shoes."

The general consensus among the clubs, the SFL, the SFA, and other interested parties is that the creation of a pyramid system, where the team that finishes bottom of the third division is automatically relegated and replaced by a club from the non-league hierarchy, can only be a positive step for Scottish football. It is one that has been successfully introduced into English football.

There the National League System consists of seven steps below the Football League, starting with the Blue Square Premier, with each further step down the chain bringing an increasing number of divisions and clubs.

The system requires constant tinkering and presents geographical anomalies and difficulties but the basic premise remains: any team, no matter how lowly, has the opportunity to progress through the divisions to one day take their place among the elite in the Premier League. Tom Willis, an expert on English non-league football and creator of thepyramid.info website, outlined the pros and cons of such a hierarchy.

"The English system was never really formally planned - it has mostly evolved into its present state," he told The Herald. "This has the advantage that the number and depth of leagues in a given area reflects demand. However, this can lead to gaps in coverage - a club in the gap faces significantly higher travel costs compared with competing clubs and similarly will get fewer away fans visiting them and hence lower gate money.

"The principal advantage of the pyramid system is that fans and clubs know that they potentially have a route right to the very top - the classic English example being Wimbledon. Similarly, poorly performing clubs will sink down. Consequently, the top league will have the very best clubs in the country."

How to tailor such a scheme to suit the demands of the Scottish game, therefore, is the challenge now facing the governing bodies north of the border.

A joint working party consisting of SFA and SFL members, as well as representatives from myriad clubs, has been established to try to find a solution to the debate that has raged on for several decades.

"What I have seen from the clubs who applied to join the league has confirmed my belief a pyramid system would be the way ahead for Scottish football," said David Longmuir, chief executive of the SFL, recently.

"There's a role in our game for such a structure - it just has to be controlled, managed and set up properly. We've been talking about it for decades and it has been a problem geographically. But we'd look at the regionality and try to work something out."

Between them, clubs from the Highland and East of Scotland leagues provided the five candidates for the recent SFL election and will likely be at the vanguard of any non-league revolution.

The South of Scotland League will also be keen to be involved, while how to incorporate the hundreds of junior teams playing nationwide, and whether they would want to be included in the first place, adds another intriguing element to the logistical problems.

If there are to be objections to the installation of a trapdoor out of the SFL, then they likely originate from those clubs most at threat by the introduction of any system that jeopardises the current "closed shop" arrangement.

Henry McClelland, the Annan chairman, however, believes the majority of the third division clubs would welcome the change in structure, as long as the "bounceability factor", as he calls it, is addressed.

"Our opinion hasn't changed on this since last week," he said. "But the most important thing that needs to be addressed is where these third division clubs would play, were they to be relegated.

"Take Dumbarton, for example. Would you put them in the Highland League, the East of Scotland League, or South of Scotland League? There's no obvious solution. We think a pyramid system would come into place soon. But it will take extremely open minds to get it done."

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