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Analysis: what Herald Sport staff think of the SPL proposals

We asked three of our writers to give their views on reconstruction of the game in Scotland. Here are their answers . . .

Michael Grant

What is your assessment of the SPL plans?

There is a duty to resist the temptation to make knee-jerk reactions about what the SPL has come up with – especially given that the proposal is at only a preliminary stage and has yet to be formally presented to the clubs – but there is no getting away from this: it looks an ugly and complicated mess.

Feedback from supporters has found they want a bigger top division, the end of teams meeting four times per season, lower prices and games at 3pm on a Saturday. These SPL proposals cater for none of those. The sheer complexity of the proposed structure – two divisions of 12 morphing into three leagues of eight in the middle of a season – is alienating for fans.

Fine, there would be more promotion places for clubs to get into the top flight, but, so what? That’s not the pressing issue in Scottish football. What is being proposed to question or challenge Celtic (eventually rejoined by Rangers) utterly dominating the championship every season? Tinkering with splits does nothing to address what turns off tens of thousands of potentially “active” supporters in Scotland. The scene is depressingly poor and stale, and this would complicate, rather than address, that.

Will change happen?

League Reconstruction in Scotland is a classic Gordian knot. Everyone says they want change yet there are too many conflicting agendas, and too little unanimity of purpose, for it to happen. Self-interest continues to dictate from top to bottom – it has to, because directors are answerable to shareholders and supporters and that entirely undermines the chances of a workable consensus. Every reconstruction package means different things to different clubs. The SFA’s 16-10-16 idea is unthinkable to the SPL. The SPL’s plan to double its membership by invitation is sure to meet angry resistance from supporters who will wish their club to have nothing to do with the SPL. Neither idea can be “sold” to the other party. In other words, will change happen? Don’t bet on it.

Should the SFA intervene?

It can’t, unless the SPL and the SFL both agree to put the issue in their hands and accept consequences that one or both of them may not like. The chances of that are slim because the parties have too much to lose. Both the SFL’s David Longmuir and the SPL’s Neil Doncaster will brief the SFA’s Professional Game Board on the respective plans in the coming weeks, but the SFA has no power to impose a compromise unless both leagues sign up for it and agree that they want change.

Where do Rangers fit in?

The SFL feels empowered while it has Rangers in the ranks but eventually the club will have worked their way back to the top division. Chief executive Charles Green’s hot air about having nothing to do with the SPL while he’s at the club is easily ignored. If they get promoted all the way back into it, and it still exists, his bluster will be forgotten and they’ll again be an SPL club as quick as a flash. Others are hyper-sensitive to the idea of any reconstruction being purely to fast-track Rangers into the top flight. Rangers, and the return of four Old Firm games a season, are huge factors in SPL thinking.

What is the ideal league format?

There isn’t an ideal format, because there cannot be a structure which entirely pleases, say, Celtic and Dundee so it’s about making the best of a bad lot. Any change could be introduced on a trial basis, maybe for three or four seasons. There need not be a permanent commitment to it. The SFL’s 16-10-16 idea is flawed, but it is attractive in some regards. A 30-fixture top flight would be crisp and refreshing and might just give a non-Old Firm club a chance of maintaining a title challenge deeper into the campaign. Supporters and broadcasters wouldn’t be taking in the same fixtures four times a season. But this isn’t ideal either, because there’s no cat in hell’s chance of it being accepted by the major clubs or broadcasters. Scottish football’s problem isn’t the numbers, it’s the fact key decision-makers remain permanently shackled to a format built on Celtic and Rangers playing each other as often as possible.

Will league reconstruction make any difference?

Not really. It’s not about 10, 12, or 16 team leagues. The poor standard of play, unpopular pricing and depressing over-familiarity has driven supporters away and juggling the numbers won’t address any of that. Over the past ten years there has been a huge decline the quality of player fans have paid to see. Scottish football hasn’t been attractive enough for broadcasters to pump in enough money to change that.

Stewart Fisher

What is your assessment of the SPL plans?

Hardly one of surprise. Plans for an SPL2 in some shape or form have been circulating for around a decade now, and even this current idea for two leagues of 12, dividing into three groupings of eight after 22 games, has been doing the rounds since Gordon Smith was at the SFA, having experienced such a system in the Austrian leagues with Admira Wacker.

For me, it is a slight improvement on the current system, only because it tidies up the messiness of the current split, and provides a greater chance of teams moving between divisions. It is, however, against the settled wishes of the fans.

Details are sketchy about what it would mean for the clubs below the top-24 cut-off and it does nothing to address the greatest problems of the top flight, the lack of competitiveness at the top, and the monotony of playing teams four times a season.

Will change happen?

Hard to predict. The presence of Rangers in the SFL gives the lower division clubs some bargaining power and can be the catalyst for change. SFL clubs feel empowered and have held ranks so far but should a couple of financially threatened clubs decide to jump ship to this new SPL2, it could trigger a domino effect.

Should the SFA intervene?

In an ideal world, yes. Quite frankly, decisions like these on the future of the Scottish game are too big to be taken by self-interested parties. The SFA is charged with overseeing all football in this country – and has a clear, strategic aim of implementing a pyramid system – but events of the summer have fostered a mistrust of the association among Scotland’s smaller clubs.

Where do Rangers fit into this?

A good question, and one which Neil Doncaster has so far declined to answer. It would seem perverse to launch a new structure to safeguard the professional game yet leave one of the country’s two footballing giants on the outside looking in, but inviting Rangers even into the second tier ahead of schedule could undermine the competition’s credibility straight away and prove a political hard-sell for SPL clubs who refused to readmit them as a newco during the summer. On the assumption they are invited to join, the Ibrox club will have a decision to make, and could effectively become kingmakers in this process.

What is your ideal league format?

Scottish football needs action far more drastic than anything envisaged so far. As it is, a league which only two teams feel they have a chance of winning – make that one while Rangers are absent from the top flight – disenfranchises supporters of 10 of the SPL teams from week one of the season. What glory is there to be derived from battling for a sixth- place finish?

My answer, therefore, is for a 16-team top flight, much like the one proposed by the SPL, but with a network of play-offs, including one in which the top four teams contest the title itself.

In such a scenario, the best-placed finisher would play fourth in a best-of-three basis, and second v third, with the winners playing off, again in a best of three, for the title and Champions League spot. In all likelihood, Celtic and Rangers would contest the league every season, but other teams may just feel they have a chance of winning the league.

Will it make any difference?

There is good work being done in youth clubs, academies and the regions, but changes to the structure and number of leagues in Scotland are nothing without clubs dropping ticket prices, allowing kids free access out of hours to school pitches and further investment in full size indoor pitches. More Scottish football should also be played in the better weather, but the product has to be right to help inspire a new generation of kids.

Richard Wilson

What’s your assessment of the SPL plans?

The proposals seek to be radical but are shaped by compromise. Supporters do not want a 10-team top-flight, commercial partners, in particular broadcasters, are less interested in a league of 16 teams or more, so a solution in between has been found. There is some value in the split into eight-team groups, since the majority of games would be competitive, but the middle eight, where teams will have their points tally returned to zero, is messy. And the plan is divisive, since the remaining SFL teams are left to fend for themselves. There are also no details on how income will be redistributed, which is crucial.

Will change happen?

The two league bodies have different plans, but both require clubs in the other league to agree, so consensus is unlikely. The SPL want change, but could continue as a 12-team set-up, so long as it doesn’t encounter financial difficulties. The SFL are empowered by the presence of Rangers, but the likelihood is that in three years Rangers will return to the top flight, so then what?

There is a will for reconstruction, but no agreement on how to proceed, so expect a further impasse. There is currently too much antagonism to find a solution.

Should the SFA intervene?

Since the SPL and SFL are essentially at loggerheads, then it makes sense for a third, independent figure to try to provide a voice of reason and push towards a solution that best serves the needs of Scottish football rather than the self-interest that lies behind much of the posturing.

However, Stewart Regan believes that he can’t step in, because the leagues have their own voting structures. Regan also attempted to assist in finding a solution to Rangers’ fate last summer, only to be vilified for his stance. That undermined his authority, so he now has to take a watching brief. Yet the SFA should take a leading role.

Where do Rangers fit in?

For the SPL, Rangers must be included in the 12 teams invited to make up a second tier, since the newly branded top-flight would be for the country’s “full-time professional clubs”. This remains a sensitive topic, since the SPL clubs voted against keeping Rangers in the SPL last summer because of fan power. The SFL plan would have Rangers rise up the new leagues as normal. In truth, though, Rangers are central. Scottish football’s finances depend upon the Old Firm. Nothing has changed that. Even the 12-12 set-up is designed to ensure there are four Old Firm league games a season. Popular opinion may wish otherwise, but the commercial reality is that the Old Firm matter, as a duo.

What is the ideal league format?

In an ideal world, two top leagues of 10, with a pyramid structure beneath. That would cater for 20 leading clubs, with enough room for other clubs to aspire to that status. It would also provide competition throughout the season, since all teams would have something to play for, and the SFA’s youth development programme follows the view that players develop best in a competitive environment. However, fans don’t want teams playing each other four times a season. Since commercial partners wouldn’t encourage a 16-team league, then the 12-12 is the compromise solution. Two smaller leagues would be better, though.

Will league reconstruction make any difference?

Rearranging the leagues is not enough. For Scottish football to flourish, youth development needs to move to the front of all clubs’ priorities. Teams also need to re-engage properly with their fans, so communicate better with them, accept their roles in the community, reduce ticket prices, fight for standardised kick-off times and make the game and the experience of attending matches more acceptable to families on tight incomes. As every club in financial trouble has learned, only the fans can be relied upon. That relationship needs to become a two-way street.

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