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Numbers don't add up but Longmuir has the answers

DAVID Longmuir has a folder of print-outs.

David Longmuir  is very much a man  in demand as plans for a restructured Scottish game take shape
David Longmuir is very much a man in demand as plans for a restructured Scottish game take shape

Scottish football is all in there: league reconstruction, the alternatives, the money, the distribution, how the League Cup could be remodelled on the format used by the Champions League, plenty more besides. He has all the information but not all the answers, because nobody has those. When he gathers tomorrow with the rest of a working party on reconstruction, the chief executive of the Scottish Football League will continue to tread carefully. "If you put all 42 club chairmen in a room right now it would be like herding butterflies," he says. "They would be all over the place."

Gradually they are beginning to flutter towards the same point, though. Tomorrow's meeting will be the working party's third in a month, a dizzying level of activity given that Scottish football tends to move towards change at a pace best described as glacial. The frequency of the meetings is a clue as to how well the talks are going, according to Longmuir. If he is right, Scottish football is on course to adopt a 12-12-18 league format and other fundamental changes. And if enough of the clubs agree they could be in place before the start of next season.

Some supporters may be puzzled by all of this. How can Longmuir embrace a structure proposed by the Scottish Premier League when his own clubs in the SFL unanimously backed an entirely different one in November, namely three divisions of 16-10-16? The answer centres on Longmuir's pragmatism.

A top flight of 16 – despite persuasive evidence of its popularity among supporters – is considered undeliverable. Top-flight chairmen will not tolerate a league campaign of only 30 games and broadcasters remain unshakably committed to a format in which the leading clubs (ie Celtic and Rangers, when the latter eventually recover) play each other four times a season. Unless the major clubs and broadcasters completely transform their attitudes to the maximisation of revenue, a league of 16 or more clubs is impossible in Scotland.

Since the working party was set up under the auspices of the SFA's Professional Game Board, delicate negotiations have taken place and understandings reached. Longmuir has been persuaded that his clubs can be protected, even strengthened, without necessarily getting the structure for which they voted in November. If the SPL and SFL merge into a single governing league body for all 42 clubs, it would be far easier to deliver a more equitable distribution of central income. Longmuir's folder has the potential breakdown of that and, crucially, there would be a far, far softer financial landing for any club relegated from the top flight to the second tier. With that, play-offs and a pyramid structure, Longmuir's feeling is that his 30 clubs may be convinced to accept 12-12-18 because they will have had enough victories on the other issues they want.

"We would struggle to get a 16-team top league because of the lack of games but it could be possible to sell the other idea," he says. "That's the crux of the matter. The four elements of play-offs, redistribution, one league body, and better governance are far more important to me in terms of growing the game. The size of the league and the numbers game is hugely important to fans but for me it's not the fundamental issue. You can tweak your league structure as you move through but to get these other issues resolved would be a massive win for the game. We haven't had that for 14 years [since the SPL was formed] so don't discount the importance of that side of things. That's far more important than the size of the leagues.

"We had a single governing body for the leagues for 120 years until 1998 and we weren't that bad. In fact, that was the last year Scotland qualified for anything [the France '98 World Cup]. For the last 14 years we've been too busy trying to cut this cake thinly and protect the interests of the few without realising that the game needs to thrive, not just for the few. It's not all about the small clubs wanting a bigger slice of the cake, it's about trying to get the basics right so that you grow the cake. We have agreed on that. All we're doing at the moment is working hard on the detail."

The detail isn't exactly easy to swallow, of course. The 12-12-18 comes with an ugly split in which the top two divisions of 12 mutate into three mini-leagues of eight after 22 games. The top eight would then play for the title and European places, the middle eight would play to decide whether they started the next season among the leading 12 clubs, and the bottom eight would play to avoid relegation to the following season's third tier of 18. Frankly, it's messy.

"The major weakness in a top league of 16 is the lack of games," says Longmuir. "And the two 12s into three eights has a major weakness in that it is convoluted and complicated for fans to engage with. There is no perfect solution. The biggest issue will be getting fans to engage with it. A league of 16 is easy to engage with, it's a straightforward and simple formula, 15 games at home and 15 away. We would struggle to get a 16-team top league because of the lack of games but it could be possible to sell the other idea.

"What we have at the moment is 12 SPL clubs who are all agreed for the first time in years. So is this a window of opportunity that we need to take advantage of to get all the other bits in place?"

If the working party takes that view – and more clubs are being added to it all the time in an attempt to slowly build an overall consensus – a new structure could be in place even in time for next season.

Whereas the SFA and SPL chief executives, Stewart Regan and Neil Doncaster, were bruised by their handling of Rangers' collapse, Longmuir was perceived to have come through unscathed. Rangers have not been involved in the working party so far but their SFL status has empowered him in dealings with the other bodies. The SFL has been the main beneficiary of the Rangers scandal. Broadcasting rights to their lower-league games were sold off for £3m and their attendances have provided a windfall for the Irn-Bru Third Division.

"Towns and communities have made it an event when Rangers come," Longmuir says. "They know that Rangers fans will travel in big numbers, and bring colour and vibrancy to the games. The other thing is that they have all been very well behaved. I am very much in close contact with the police because this is a new dynamic: big crowds coming to small communities but the police authorities have been very, very positive about the experience. There has been a swamping of towns by Rangers supporters but it has been a positive thing. The communities have benefited, hostelries have benefited, and I've been amazed by the amount of hospitality the small clubs have been able to sell.

"Behind the scenes the Rangers officials and board have been handling themselves with professional dignity and been very complimentary to the other clubs. They have treated them as equals, they haven't come in with any 'big-time Charlie' attitude. They want to come through the league, make friends, and get to where they want to be having nothing but positive support from the clubs they've played against."

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