As Scott Gardiner, the Dundee chief executive, left Hampden yesterday, he spoke positively about the mood for change among the Scottish Premier League clubs, but there was a caveat.
"The devil's in the detail," he said after leaving a meeting that for once saw unanimity among the top-flight sides. The mood of consensus is not shared throughout the game, after all.
During the next two weeks, the SPL will finalise their plans to expand into two top divisions, a move likely to require 12 clubs being invited to break away from the Scottish Football League. Many of the lower-league clubs remain irked by the events of the summer, when they felt they were being dictated to by the SPL about what division Rangers should be in. The ill-feeling continues to linger, and all 30 SFL clubs voted for their own form of league reconstruction last week, with a 16-10-16 format.
Loading article content
In the SPL boardroom yesterday, amidst much talk of optimism, unanimity and positivity, Neil Doncaster said he did not recognise the threat of civil war breaking out. Yet there seems little widespread agreement when the two leagues are working on different plans. They will both present their ideas at a meeting of the Scottish Football Association's Professional Game Board, but that is essentially a forum for debate among various representatives of different levels of football in Scotland; it is the clubs that will ultimately decide, and there remains a split in opinion.
As it stands, the 30 SFL clubs are ranged against the 12 SPL clubs. Both organisations understand their plan will essentially marginalise the other. Where once there might have been an agreement to merge the two, with two divisions and a pyramid structure, there is now a tussle over who should prevail. Clubs will decide, since the SFA cannot intervene due to the voting structures of the two, but financial considerations will be critical.
The SPL must act as one. No club is likely to break ranks to rejoin the SFL if that means smaller commercial returns, but while the current Sky television deal is for five years, it is understood the broadcaster has a release clause at the end of this season depending on viewing figures. The SPL could continue as a 12-team organisation, so long as no financial hurdles intervene. The unanimity for change is, in part, a reaction to the SFL's bid to lead the reconstruction process, as it represented a cause for all the SPL clubs to challenge together.
"There's a real belief that there's an appetite for change out there and that appetite is shared within this [board] room," Doncaster said. "To have 12 clubs in agreement is extremely encouraging. We had 25 goals this weekend, [which] demonstrates with the crowds at Pittodrie and Tynecastle that there are many reasons to be hugely positive."
Yet there were meagre crowds at other SPL games, while Rangers continue to have among the highest home gates in British football. Doncaster began shaking his head during a question about the Ibrox side, but that merely represents how sensitive a topic it remains. No special case will be made for any one club, but if 12 teams are to be invited into the SPL and the two leagues are to cater for Scotland's full-time professional clubs, Rangers could not be left out.
The SFL believe that they are in a position of strength while the Ibrox side remain under their auspices, and David Longmuir was less damaged by the turmoil of the summer than Stewart Regan or Doncaster. Some SFL clubs are suffering financially so could they reject the invite to an expanded SPL, with greater commercial exposure and revenues? If Rangers were to accept an invite – and many of their fans, and Charles Green, the chief executive, are still antagonistic towards the SPL – other clubs would reason that there is no attraction to staying in the SFL.
All of these intrigues have to be resolved but if there is a widespread acceptance that change is necessary to revitalise the game, a way has to be found through the competing interests. "I'm not going to second guess how people would feel about it," said Doncaster when asked how the SFL might respond. "Our responsibility is to full-time professional football clubs and those clubs who aspire to be that. At the same time, we recognise we have a responsibility to football as a whole."
Longmuir did not want to comment on the SPL's stance, and now politicking will come into play, with the state of the game at stake. The SPL want to expand, and the SFL want to consolidate all the clubs into one organisation. The two bodies disagree, since the 16-team top-flight is considered to have "a lot of meaningless mid-table games" according to Doncaster. Yet the SPL have still to finalise the "competition, distribution and voting [structure]" of their proposal.
Doncaster would not be drawn on a timescale, but the SPL intends to have finalised their plans within two weeks, suggesting that there is an intention to achieve restructuring by the beginning of next season. Change is coming, but for now there is still an impasse.