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Elitist proposal perpetuates fear factor that has caused so much damage to our game

It was an old French dynasty that gave us the phrase "they learned nothing and forgot nothing".

That thought has been reignited, as the shoulders are being put to the wheel to trundle out something new for Scottish football with perhaps little regard for the past, as there should be. To guide us down that path, I present you with the philosophy of one of the past leaders in the business: I give you Jim McLean.

One of the most withering denunciations of the old-style 10-club Premier League was put to me once by the Tannadice sage, in a bitter recognition of the encroachment of the "hammer throwers" into the game. He used the kind of language which made Graeme Souness's famed rebuke seem like the mild admonition of a headmistress to someone whose school tie is askew.

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But at the core of the vitriol was a thread of common sense, as was the case with a great deal of what the former Dundee United manager uttered, despite what his many detractors said about him.

 

In essence, he was basing it on the punishment Graham Payne, one of his midfielders, was receiving as he tried to play neat, inventive football, but was exiting the field, according to the manager, looking like he had been trampled on by a stampeding herd and, given the description offered of Payne's black and blue legs, you were left thinking that had they been left to posterity they could have suggested we had civilised ourselves little since the days of the Picts.

Portraying his player as a victim of a negative league, McLean went so far to suggest that since midfield play in that league had become primarily a survival of the fittest, he would have to bypass it. There was something almost plaintive in his declaration that, tactically, he would simply resort to route one.

It seemed to me at the time that it was like the purist throwing a footballing catechism out of the window. Exaggeration? Perhaps. Bluster, no! An all-pervasive fear of losing matches was, at the time, gripping the mentality in such a way it was like men of peace being put on to a war footing.

The elitist top 10 started that, and the mentality has stuck. If you thought you were something in the world, you could scarcely afford to be out of the special club. It is not that relegation did not bring its obvious financial pain, but worse than that, gradually, from its inception, there grew the threat that exclusion could also mean extinction. What kind of football can you play in such an environment? The kind that after three decades of such negativity, and the importation of so much foreign talent that could be interpreted as an act of infanticide on Scottish youth, has left us with a product that bewilders the paying customer so much that we scarcely know where to turn for salvation.

Are we not scared of the sight of so much league football being practically indigestible, with supporters turning up out of a sense of duty? And that includes what happens at Ibrox where, even with the introduction of an element of youth, some of the worst football in the stadium's history is now being played there.

And are we not anxious that the club representing us in Europe and whose historical agenda was to enter a football field almost as on the crest of a crusade, now plays much of its domestic football as if on autopilot? We should be. The legacy of the elitist movement from decades ago has rendered Scottish football in general moribund. It succumbed to the sweeping social trend of short-termism, the quick fix, that afflicted many of us during the Thatcher years. In our excitement at the rare occasional European success and the introduction of some undoubtedly fine foreign faces such as a Laudrup or a Larsson, we failed to see we were not planting seeds in the right places. There was no real long-term investment.

Of course, academies were set up, but how many boys were pitched into the real battle? Clubs simply could not afford to take risks. The young Hearts team have performed splendidly this season by reaching a final, but most of them would still have been carrying team hampers if Romanov had not made his financial manipulations seem like Tommy Cooper at his best.

The SPL proposal will change nothing of that corrosive legacy. Indeed, it will augment it, given the splits and rearrangements which will take place during a season. What kind of adventurous, entertaining football will be served up as relegation worries about falling into one category or another are established in the middle of the season, extending the period of purgatory in which a manager's sanity might be questioned by his board if he experimented, put the emphasis on attack, and tried to entertain.

Scottish football needs to create a breathing space for itself in which to truly innovate and experiment on the field of play. A top league of 16 would give us that, although I realise it sounds to some like I am advocating the reimplementation of the ill-fated Darien Scheme. It would be a league carrying a resistance to the virus of elitism and cannot be dismissed purely on the grounds of finance, or else we are back where we started all those years ago when we ignored modest realism for overblown ambition.

The strongest card the SPL is playing with its proposal is its novelty. But wasn't that the sales pitch of the DeLorean car? That element of survival at all costs will not only endure, but will be augmented by the complicated divisions arising from the SPL proposal which will create desperation, either to stay along with the elite, or avoid slipping into the morass, as they would see it.

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