ONE hundred and twenty-two years after its formation, and fully 15 years after many in the game began to regard it as a relic and an irrelevance, the Scottish Football League is calling the shots once more.
Thirty well-to-do local Scottish businesspeople, casting their votes on behalf of the community clubs they represent – only 29 will vote, as Dundee are perceived to have a conflict of interest – will meet this Friday to define the future direction of the Scottish game and determine the fate of a global brand with a multi-million pound turnover. For those with long enough memories to recall the acrimony, mass resignations and horse-trading of previously-held principles which accompanied the beginnings of the Scottish Premier League circa September 1997, there must be a pleasing sense of symmetry, a feeling of matters coming full circle.
But this is no time for gloating, point scoring and one-upmanship. Because with the power these chairmen have been vested with comes an awesome responsibility. Most of these clubs have a judgment call to make which King Solomon would wrestle with. Uppermost in their thoughts is a thirst for natural justice, that Rangers Football Club, Sevco Scotland, or whatever you want to call them, should receive the same fate as any other liquidated football club and be forced to take their chances upon applying for re-admittance to the third division.
A deluge of letters, e-mails and posts on message boards from their rank and file, threatening boycotts, betrays a yearning for an old fashioned act of cleansing and catharsis, a puritanical purge whereby Scottish football can wash its hands of its unfortunate recent history and rebuild. It is a reminder to big clubs about the perils of making enemies on the way up, because fans have photographic memories and will remember it on the way down.
There is an alternative argument, of course. One that states that football these days isn't just a sport, a Corinthian ideal played out on a level playing field. It is a business, and if done properly, it can still be big business.
Accommodating Rangers in the third division, of course, would mean at least three seasons, maybe more, without the guarantee of competitive Old Firm matches, a fixture which has never been more fundamental to Scottish domestic football and something the starving Scottish game can ill afford.
A three-year absence would mean that broadcasters Sky and ESPN would insist upon re-calculating the maths of the TV deal. Whether or not this will mean £3m-a-year, instead of £15m-a-year, there would clearly be a drastic impact on teams across the country. But if you have never had that kind of cash, it is easier to live without it.
It was entirely understandable that self-sufficient lower league chairmen bristled somewhat when, having been cut out of the profits of the Old Firm game – save, of course, from their share of the annual £2m settlement agreement – SPL chief executive Neil Doncaster lectured them about having to accept newco Rangers to the first division in order to save the skins of up to six of his own members.
The task in front of these chairmen isn't made easier by the fact this newco Rangers are such a basket case. They may still have Ibrox and Murray Park, but they have fewer contracted players with every passing day, and even their potentially vast supporter base are understandably eyeing their new owner with suspicion.
Assuming they are eventually granted entry into a league, the thousands will surely mobilise, but the feeling that newco Rangers should begin life in the third division is a notion which not only has been voiced by the Rangers manager but is gaining support amongst the club's fanbase. As of last night, attempting to second guess how Friday would turn out remained a fraught business.
The nuts and bolts are simple enough: clubs will be invited to vote on the resolutions in a couple of stages, with a simple majority sufficient to pass on each occasion. Firstly, clubs will decide whether to admit the club into the SFL, then decide whether to authorise the board to parachute them into the first division, subject to agreement of a package of reforms presented to them by the board after consultation with the SFA and SPL. Not least is a full-blown merger between the SPL and SFL under the banner of the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL).
Play-offs, and a change to the financial distribution model are both involved, and one key SFL demand is for equal representation on the proposed SPFL board, perhaps on the basis of three from each league and two independent members. There are no right and wrong answers, no three-line whips, just a matter of conscience. To date the arithmetic points to the third division, but there may yet be give and take before the votes are cast.
A meeting of the SFL board today – it comprises chief executive David Longmuir and president Jim Ballantyne, along with representatives from Alloa, Livingston, Brechin, Queen's Park, Dunfermline, Arbroath and Dumbarton – will discuss developments and attempt to allow member clubs to make as informed a decision as possible. But somehow, it said it all yesterday that Spartans, the ambitious East of Scotland League side, having previously said they couldn't envisage a situation where Rangers couldn't get back into the leagues, were readying a fresh application.
"I am happy SFL clubs should make that vote, without fear of pressure," Longmuir told Herald Sport last night.
"We need to give the clubs the time they need to make an informed decision. Let's leave what has gone behind us. We have to think to the future now."
Such controversies aren't exactly new in the history of the Scottish Football League. After just five matches of their inaugural season in 1890-91, founder members and so-called 'world champions' Renton were expelled for playing a friendly against St. Bernard's, who had committed the heinous crime of concealed professionalism, only for Renton to see their membership of both the SFA and SFL restored by an action against the Court of Session.
The season 2012-13 may yet be the last for the SFL in its current form, but at least in its old age it has rediscovered its relevance.
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