IF the chairmen and owners of Scotland's leading clubs feel bruised and resentful about the overwhelmingly negative reaction to their latest plans for league reconstruction, they have no-one to blame but themselves.
They have been co-authors of their own bad press over the evolution of three divisions of 12, 12 and 18 as the way ahead. The members of the Scottish Premier League and Scottish Football League are almost at the point of voting it through before uttering a word to supporters about why they think it is the best idea.
The reaction to 12-12-18 has been a self-inflicted public relations disaster, and a predictable one. Any widespread survey of supporters' views always coughs up the conclusion that they want a top division of at least 16 clubs. Clubs give every impression of paying lip service to these opinion polls while privately finding them utterly irrelevant. Their ongoing commitment to a league of 12, and to the major fixtures occurring four times a season, shows that they are unshakably of the view that that is what makes them the most money. But if they feel stung by the hostility towards 12-12-18, they must ask themselves this: how much have they done to explain why they must have a 12-team league, and must have the leading teams playing each other four times?
Clubs have allowed the impression to take root that they do not care about what their supporters think, and that is because they have been so poor at explaining themselves. A culture in which transparency sits uneasily with many Clydesdale Bank Premier League clubs prevents them from revealing, in detail, how much money they believe they would lose from going to a 16-team division. What if Aberdeen explained that they would be, say, £200,000 worse off and could not have afforded to pay Niall McGinn? Or Hibernian Leigh Griffiths? Or Dundee United Johnny Russell? Even without disclosing any individual's salary they could illustrate the need, as they see it, for 12 clubs and four-meetings-a-season by providing evidence that any other format would lead to cuts or redundancies.
By failing to make their case to supporters, the owners and chairmen have invited criticism and scorn. Their objectives are exactly the same as those of most of their fans: to generate as much money as possible in order that their club is robust and competitive. But by standing back, and surrendering the initiative, 12-12-18 has been buried under negative feedback. And even if 12-12-18 and mini-leagues of eight is a new twist, the leading clubs' commitment to 12 is not.
The 12-12-18 proposal is still that, a proposal. Even the entire SPL and SFL memberships are short of full details and there are – as with any format – many dissatisfying elements to what will be voted on. Its complexity and ugliness – two division splitting into three – goes without saying.
One major, practical issue is the fact the three divisions of eight cannot be determined until the top 24 clubs, in two different leagues, have played exactly 22 games. Given that they reach that point in the season in January, when postponements are rife, the potential for upheaval and chaos is huge. At the moment, five top-flight clubs have played 22 games, six have played 21, and Ross County have played only 20. Yet County could be among the top eight clubs if they win their two games in hand.
What if bad weather bites a huge chunk out of a season? Would any outstanding fixtures be rushed through in the winter break? If so, why have a winter break at all? And if not, is the winter break to be ditched only one season after it was reintroduced for the leading clubs? Many of the clubs in the country's top 24 (the "Premier Division" and "Championship" would not have undersoil heating and would therefore be especially susceptible to postponements. Right now, Dunfermline Athletic have played 19 games but Dumbarton only 16. Without a fundamental change to when the season begins, a split after 22 games is always going to mean that it happens in December, January or at the latest February, all of which are prone to erratic and ruinous weather.
A January split will mean clubs on the margins of the top, middle or bottom eight would be unsure how much money they could expect to make in the remaining four months of the season (would they have another visit from Celtic? Would they get any money for television companies showing any home games live?) just when the transfer window was open and they had to make decisions on potentially committing to new wages.
Those teams in the middle eight will have their points reset to zero after the split. They have to be, because they will have been earned against a different set of opponents, and yet there is an inherent unfairness in that. Hearts are currently 14 points ahead of Dundee but both would be back at zero for the run-in, which will determine whether they are in the Premier Division the following season. The middle eight becomes a sprint for promotion and relegation, which is both dramatic and unfair. Dunfermline are currently 11 points above Raith Rovers but would similarly have that advantage erased.
These are legitimate questions and issues surrounding this plan and the architects of 12-12-18 must, once their fine tuning has been completed, provide answers. And when the talking starts it should continue, because so far their silence has seen the big idea being shot to pieces in its infancy.