WHEN Ally McCoist said recently that his staff were going through a list of 143 Clydesdale Bank Premier League players whose contracts are due to expire in the summer – and who Rangers would have to persuade to wait only until September 1, when their registration embargo clears – a new reality was placed in a harsh light.
It talked to the debate around the changing identity of football in Scotland; to the new economic pressures on the full-time clubs; to the shift in what supporters see in their team.
In the immediate future, it points to a likely talent drain from the Premier League to the top three leagues in England. Celtic are likely to pass their summer without recruiting a single player from their own division; Rangers, gearing up for another promotion push, are likely to continue to lure free agents with top-flight experience. The majority, including some of the brightest talents in the league this season, will join clubs in England, a kind of financial promotion. The economics of professional sport dictate that they will be replaced by players at an earlier stage of their development, or just flat-out inferior.
From the list of free agents (opposite page) a team can be formed that would challenge Celtic for the title. It is by no means the limit to the talent set to enter the Bosman market.
Darren Randolph, the Motherwell goalkeeper, is behind only Fraser Forster of Celtic as the best in the league, with Cammy Bell of Kilmarnock another custodian whose contract is nearing an end. Dave Mackay remains one of the best-kept secrets in the Scottish top flight, the St Johnstone right-back providing leadership, set-pieces and assists to solid defending; at Aberdeen, Russell Anderson has regained his stature; he could be partnered by Marius Zaliukas, who captained Hearts to Scottish Cup success; Danny Grainger, another Hearts defender, provides solidity at left-back.
In midfield, Paul McGowan is a creative force for St Mirren, while Liam Kelly has graduated to become an influential all-rounder at Kilmarnock and was yesterday the subject of a £150,000 bid from Bristol City. Either side of those two, Ryan Fraser, the teenager who turned down a new contract before he had braved a Pittodrie winter as a first teamer, and David Wotherspoon, a man transformed at Hibernian in the final year of his contract; Andrew Shinnie, a joy to watch for Inverness this season, can provide the ammunition for Leigh Griffiths, who will leave under different terms after the expiry of his loan to Hibernian.
Jack Ross is the chairman of PFA Scotland. He once signed for Hartlepool United when faced with the choice between the lower leagues in England and mid-ranking Scottish clubs and has observed a change in the cross-border balance of power even since then.
"It's a very difficult situation [for clubs] in the short term," he said. "Part of that difficulty is that the second tier in England is something like the fifth-best supported league in Europe and that generates big revenues. That's one of many factors that make [England] the Holy Grail in terms of player movement and we are in an almost unique situation geographically. These are circumstances [the relationship with England] that do not apply to clubs in most other countries.
"I think there are always short-term cash-flow issues. Look at the transfer of Jamie Murphy from Motherwell. I would argue that finishing second in the SPL is worth considerably more to that club than the money [an initial £100,000] they got from Sheffield United. But they needed that sale to get by in the short term.
"I don't see any reversal when it comes to these contracts. Experienced first-team players, at the higher end of a club's wage budget, are still going to come in on one-year contracts. The young players coming through can be better managed [contractually] and that is where clubs can get value."
So does this anticipated talent drain mean a drop in quality, apathy in the stands and a downward spiral in revenue? Ross disagrees, making a distinction between on-field and in-stadium entertainment and the earning power of the players we are watching.
"We should accept this is where we are and deal with it: make sure the product we have is entertaining. The flip side to this [loss of talent] is that young players here get opportunities that are not available elsewhere and were not available before. There is negativity when we talk about these things. I would like to see some solutions. Someone who asks: what can I do to make the customer experience better? There is no welcome at football grounds. For too long the clubs have relied on the fact that football is the No.1 sport."
Ross argues that if Scotland is becoming a development league, then it should be celebrated, making it a distinct attraction to the journeymen jostling in League One. He talks about clubs connecting better with customers, going semi-pro and placing their players in their community to strengthen bonds. He talks about football in the summer, or on Friday night. Something radical to make it different from that to the south; like-for-like comparisons can be so unflattering.
As contracts shorten and a good season in the Premier League attracts clubs with bigger budgets, the top division in Scotland may just have to get accept that is a place where the best players are just passing through.