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League reform: why bigger is better - for all our teams

HeraldScotland reader DUNCAN GAMMIE, from Edinburgh, says the current reconstruction proposals are missing the real point

Under the guise of reconstruction for the betterment of the game, we are being presented with a 12-12-18 plan which does nothing more than preserve the short term financial model of the current, failed SPL - but delivered with a bribe of a pyramid structure and amalgamation of the SPL and SFL.

The bribes, of course, are desired and necessary changes wanted by the vast majority of supporters. However to use this as a means to maintain their status quo is just plain wrong.

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For a start, league reconstruction should not have been allowed to have been undertaken by the SPL and SFL, two organisations which have vested interests in maintaining current commercial arrangements.

The SFA as administrator and "protector" of our game should have been looking at the structure of the game, and what best suits development of teams and players, then forcing the implementation of this, as they have the power to do.

Commercial concerns should be secondary to everything: increased commercial returns will happen as a result of a properly structured and competitive league.

For me, the whole point about reconstruction is that it should be a principled undertaking about finding the correct structure to enable the development of teams and players to improve the standard of our game overall, not one that is coerced by TV companies, commercial deals or clubs’ self-interests.

Leagues of 12 (or 10 or 14) teams under the present and proposed arrangements will never facilitate this. Why not?

It is blatantly obvious that the SPL’s (failed) business model is based on getting the best TV deal they can get. Unfortunately, since the failure of Setanta and the resulting loss of any real competition for the SPL,this desperation has led to them being placed over the barrel from Sky, who basically just want four Old Firm games a season.

No games, no deal, or a pittance if they're lucky. Therefore, the SPL are locked into this quest of trying to facilitate these four games in any way they can and that has led to the current restriction on the SPL/SFL to think outside of this model.

The main problem with small leagues like this, where teams have to play each other more than twice, is exactly one of the reasons that Neil Doncaster and his motley crew give for the reason they want them.

The SPL sees a small league as being made up of the cream of the crop; thus it must be better and more competitive if these 'better' teams can play each other all the time. This idea is fundamentally wrong for a number of reasons.

Firstly, as Scotland has the pleasure of two giant dominating teams (not unlike most other countries, though the number varies), it means that each team can expect to lose probably at least five, six, or even eight games each to the top two (I am assuming in all of this that The Rangers in time will return to the top league and remain there). That in itself automatically equates to a points gap between the top and chasing pack of 15-24 points, not including any other points that are dropped throughout the season.

Secondly, the following group (ie Dundee Utd, Aberdeen, Hearts, Hibs, Motherwell) who are all roughly of equal standard then play each other four times each.

This might seem competitive, and maybe would be if it were not for the existence of Celtic and Rangers, but because of this it means it kills the competition to them.

They will play 40 games (or 120 points) of the season between themselves, which means multiple dropped points against each other, and an even more massive gap between them and the top two.

The same then happens below this group, or like this year where the group is even larger, currently 10 teams separated by eight points.

Ultimately, what happens and what we are left with is a league where two teams are 20-30 points in front of the rest, then a bunch of anywhere between three and nine teams, and eventually (usually) one poor team marooned at the bottom.

Because of the sheer number of games against their closest rivals, teams are always under pressure. The only competition that this creates is between the teams that cannot win the league, therefore the essence of the whole competition, to win the title, is not competitive.

Look across the world at national football leagues, but don’t look at the teams, just the points. All of the best leagues play each other only twice and are made up of at least 16 teams, and up to 24 in some places.

The actual number is immaterial though. The larger the league, the more even the spread of points is across the board - it is the natural mathematical representation of an order of ability of teams reflected through the points accumulated against each other.

It stands to reason that the best team has most points, the worst has the least. Then in between, where teams have gradually increasing or decreasing levels of ability and resources, there is a more or less an even increase in points towards the top. Obvious!

What I am really getting at here is that the lack of breathing space allowed between teams in systems where you play multiple times a season is stifling. Because of this pressure, teams are less likely to experiment, or to blood youngsters properly.

If the league was to increase to 16 or 18 teams, and each only played the others twice, then by simple mathematics, you could assume that the gap between top and the rest would be halved.

There would be fewer games against the rival teams next to you in the table and when these games came up, they would actually be important, 'big' games.

From a fan's point of view, there would no longer be the apathy of "Ach if we lose to Hearts, we can always get the points back next week when we play them again."

Simply, it would also mean that these teams would win more games over the course of a season, which breeds confidence to win yet more games. By not playing against the same teams constantly, teams would be able to extend good runs of form for longer. Winning, most importantly, also brings more fans through the turnstiles.

Fewer points dropped by teams at the middle to top end of the table, means that those teams would be closer to the top, so, like we saw in the first half of this season, when teams are closer to the prizes they have more to play for and it is more exciting.

The games against the big two are no longer a case of damage limitation eight times a season, they become rarer occasions, more like cup ties.

These smaller teams will be right up for the fight the closer they are to them, just like the first half of this season. How often do big teams lose to small teams in the cups?

Into the land of fantasy now, but it is even conceivable that a small team with a small budget and squad could actually win the title because of this model. (Look at AZ Alkmaar and FC Twente in Holland for an example).

Rather than having to compete on a game-by-game basis with the Old Firm, they are able to compete over the course of a full season. Obviously they have to be extremely consistent, be lucky with injuries due to squad size etc and play to their peak ability. However, it is possible.

There are lots of other advantages of larger leagues, the main one being the release of pressure from teams.

With less pressure on smaller teams to avoid the financial suicide of relegation, I can see an environment developing where teams at the lower end of the table are keener to blood youth earlier, and to persist with them when they make mistakes.

Managers would be more willing to experiment with systems and tactics, and hopefully be given more time. Player development would become a desired rather than feared phenomenon.

James McArthy, for example played 95 first team games for Hamilton in the first division by the time he was 19. A larger league would allow the next batch of youth prospects to develop in the top division, surely no bad thing.

None of the teams who would make up the increase in the top league size to 18 are strangers to the top table, and all deserve to be playing there.

Dunfermline, Raith, Livingston, Partick Thistle, Falkirk and Hamilton are all SPL standard size clubs with facilities to match (no disrespect to Morton, just highlighting these as they are recent SPL members). This can only cause more interest in a stagnated league.

The SPL has repeatedly made claims that this 12/12 + 8/8/8 split will mean fewer meaningless games.

Nonsense. They see meaningless games as ones which don't decide titles, European spots and relegation.

In reality, the only meaningless games are those that involve teams who cannot change their league position at the end of the season, ie one game to play, but four points above and four points below the teams around them.

By having a bigger league, the gap between the big two and the rest would be immediately reduced. It would not, and never can eliminate the difference in resources between them.

However, just by simple maths, the league would be closer as teams are given breathing space from the frantic points divvy-up system they currently reside in.

Having only two games against each team increases interest from fans for obvious reasons. Less "seen them before".

Add to that the extra confidence gained from winning more games against other opposition and you should find more dropped points for the Old Firm. Shortening the gap even further.

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