THE Scottish Professional Football League couldn't have picked a better time to introduce play-offs at the bottom end of the top flight.
Hearts began the season hindered by a 15-point deduction for entering administration and favourites to be relegated.
The bookmakers, as usual, called it correctly. After 22 matches Hearts trail Ross County by 20 points, their descent into the Championship now all but a certainty. In any other season that would have meant those similarly languishing in the bottom half of the Premiership having nothing to play for beyond an outside chance of making the top six. Instead, the introduction of a play-off spot for the team finishing 11th has eliminated any prospect of them downing tools and daydreaming about their summer holidays. Outside the race for European places, it should be the biggest talking point in the months ahead.
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County are in 11th place but after an unbeaten start to 2014 they are far from cut adrift. Partick Thistle, also enjoying a run of good form, are a point above them. The teams faced each other at the weekend, the 3-3 draw perhaps a reflection this was no longer the relatively meaningless affair that it would have been previously.
St Mirren are just a point better off than Thistle, with Kilmarnock one more ahead. All four will likely find themselves drawn into an increasingly fraught scrap to avoid finishing second bottom, especially after the league split when they all have to play each other.
The introduction of a possible extra path into the top division has transformed the Championship, too. The destination of the title is yet to be determined - Dundee lead Hamilton Academical by a point and they meet this weekend - and with the sides finishing second, third and fourth all rewarded with a shot at promotion via the play-offs, there is plenty to play for.
Dumbarton could feature either in the play-offs at the top of the division or the one at the bottom. Ian Murray's side sit three points shy of Raith Rovers in fourth but are only nine points better off than Cowdenbeath in the relegation play-off position.
If bottom side Morton and Cowdenbeath can be discounted on the grounds they are too far adrift, then there could be as many as 12 Premiership and Championship teams involved in the shake-up to either make or avoid the top-flight play-offs.
"It prolongs the season and gives us something to aim for," Murray told Herald Sport. "If you didn't have the play-offs at the top end then we'd be looking at the bottom and thinking, 'if we get clear of Cowdenbeath there's not too much to play for'. But now there is an extra incentive for us and it makes all the games meaningful between now and the end of the season. Every club in the Championship has something to play for one way or another. It's a long road for us but it's good to have something to keep motivating you."
That was what the SPFL had hoped for, added chief executive Neil Doncaster. "When the concept of play-offs was first mooted the one thing we knew it would deliver was excitement until the end of the season," he said. "In some seasons you end up with a team detached at the bottom of the Premiership as is the case this season. Undoubtedly, the introduction of the relegation play-off will add to the excitement both in the Premiership and the Championship."
The structure of the play-offs is different from the two semi-finals and a final used in the English set-up and Scottish lower leagues. Instead third and fourth in the Championship face off over two legs, the winner then taking on the second-placed team again on a home-and-away basis. Only then is the Premiership team involved, once more over two matches.
"It seems a wee bit unfair," said Murray. "It means if we end up finishing third or fourth we would have to play an additional six games against high-quality opposition at the end of a long season. That would be very difficult. The new set-up gives an extra chance for a club like Dumbarton to go up but it heavily favours the Premiership team. The Championship team will go into the final very heavy legged with almost no chance to rest. I don't think the gulf between the bottom of the Premiership and the Championship is all that big. You only have to look at results in the cups in recent years to see that."
Doncaster explained the rationale. "There's a 50% chance of relegation for the Premiership team involved." he added. "The alternative is you use the English system where it's 100% relegation and only have a promotion play-off but you wouldn't have got that through as part of a package of changes. The other format would have created a 75% chance of relegation and, again, that wasn't going to fly. This format was the one we could get through as part of an all-encompassing deal."
Talks with a view to broadcasting the play-offs live, thus increasing revenue streams, are ongoing. "We remain in discussion with various partners," said Doncaster. "I suspect, as awareness of the play-offs grows, interest in them will similarly grow."