SCOTTISH football's administrators last night hailed a landmark tripartite deal on league reconstruction as a "new dawn" for the national game.
After more than four hours of talks at Hampden, Stewart Regan, the chief executive of the Scottish Football Association, Neil Doncaster, his counterpart at the Scottish Premier League, and David Longmuir, of the Scottish Football League, presented a united front in support of a full-blown league merger and 12-12-18 structure, with a pyramid system below it, promising the biggest shake-up to Scottish football since the formation of the SPL in 1998.
Although similar models in both Austria in Switzerland proved short-lived, and plenty of confusion remains over the fine print, the future structure is envisaged as two leagues of 12 which split into three leagues of eight after 22 games, with the top eight in the top division playing for the title, the bottom four joining the top four in the second tier to contest promotion and relegation, and up to four of the bottom sides in the bottom eight relegated into the 18-team national league. There was unanimity that the restructure should not be used to accelerate the promotion of any club, which would mean Rangers would have to start in the national league even if they are crowned Irn Bru third division champions. The Ibrox club last night reacted angrily to the news, issuing an article on their official website which railed against the "sheer hypocrisy of what is happening within Hampden's corridors of power".
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Assuming the plans get the blessing of rank-and-file clubs in the next month or so, this new structure could be in place for the beginning of next season. All 12 SPL clubs have indicated their support for the proposal, while 75% of the SFL's contingent (22 of their 29 clubs as Rangers are still associate members and cannot vote) are required to give the ratify proposals when they meet in a fortnight.
Both leagues could claim to have made compromises. The 12 top-flight clubs are thought to have given up a seven-figure sum to facilitate fairer cash redistribution and a softer landing should they end up in the lower divisions. Doncaster also hinted that stadium criteria could be relaxed.
"It is a new dawn, I think you would say, for Scottish football," said Regan. "What's encouraged me most is that both sides have actually made concessions. Neil's made comments that his clubs have given up a substantial seven figure sum that's actually going to be shared through the rest of the game. Also the SFL have agreed to open up for the first time, subject to club consultation, and introduce a pyramid for the game. Both of those are huge concessions and they indicate there is a desire to change.
"What today represents, among other things, is a huge redistribution of wealth down the leagues," said Doncaster. "The bigger clubs are giving up a lot of money to fund, particularly the gap between the top 12 and the second 12 that exists at the moment and effectively insuring a trickle down of wealth for the whole game. There is a genuine desire to ensure that sporting merit is the basis on which clubs fill the positions which are available."
Should they endorse the plans, the SFL clubs would be giving up their previous support for a 16-10-16 structure which was more in line with the wishes of most fans, while third division clubs will be risking losing up to two clubs to a regionalised Highland and lowland league structure. Although the toxic SPL brand will be renamed, the exact name of the new organisation and the composition of its office bearers is unknown.