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If the SPL and SFL want to fix Scottish football, they need to think bigger

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Campbell Ogilvie - Roll your sleeves up, do some dirty work.

Campbell Ogilvie – Roll your sleeves up, do some dirty work.

The dust seems to have settled on the argument and now it just lays in wait for somebody to pull their fingers out. The Scottish Premier League and the Scottish Football League spent most of the autumn sounding out fans and the press and launched rival plans for restructuring the professional game in Scotland. Both plans were approved by their members with some small changes and both will press on, seemingly in the complete ignorance that any changes that are made will be just a tiny percentage of the things that need to change.

Whilst SPL chief Neil Doncaster has doubled-down on an already-unpopular split season, the SFL chief David Longmuir’s plan seems positively simple. The SFL clubs approved a new professional league of 16-10-16 including all the SPL and SFL teams, where the first and third divisions play a 30-game double round-robin season and the second a 36-game quadruple round-robin. The SPL are framing their plan as 24-18, where 18 teams remain in the SFL playing however the SFL see fit. However, the 24 SPL teams will play a double-round robin in two divisions of 12 and then a double round-robin in three divisions of 8, generating a 36 game season, conveniently the same number you would get from the previously favoured 10-team divisional plan.

There are obvious issues with both plans. The SFL plan provides for completely uneven seasons. The second tier plays six more games and those relegated to the third division will lose those games and a lot of money in the process with no current . However, more worryingly, the SPL seem to assume that they’ll be able to support 24 competitive professional teams which is simply not the case currently. In the summer, Raith Rovers chairman Turnbull Hutton discussed his club’s transition to a 3/4-time system, where part-timers were signed to supplement the full-time pros they already had. In the interview, Hutton stated: “You can’t sustain football on crowds of less than 2,000. It does not matter who you are, it’s financially impossible”. Currently the numbers do not make pretty reading.

Since Raith’s transition, there are 19 professional clubs in Scotland; the twelve in the SPL, six from Division One and new Rangers in Division Three. However, only six clubs in the SFL draw 2,000 or more, one of which is Raith themselves. It’s not like there’s a glut of clubs getting big crowds in the SFL but still struggling. It’s not as though the SPL itself is swimming in money. It’s not as though rebadging the Scottish First Division and having an extended playoff season is going to make it anything more than it is. Without regular movement between the teams in the lower echelons of SPL 2, the split season will be as stale as the current version, just with more games to whinge about. The SPL has to realise that the Scottish First Division’s membership is 50% semi-professional and the TV money from the SPL will have to make enough of a difference for five or more clubs to run as a full-time operation.  You can’t have semi-pros in Scotland’s premier league, it’s ridiculous.

Therein lies the truth about the fallacies of Scottish football. Organisationally, it’s full of false constructs, often historical or cultural, that have never been ripped down. The SFL is a semi-professional league where less than a quarter of its members are fully-professional.  As such, the organisation has faced long-term criticism for its bloated management structure compared to other semi-professional leagues in Britain. Beyond the SFL, semi-professional teams play in the non-league senior and junior ranks, though again these systems contain idiosyncrasies. Amateur football is divided, youth football is divided, some senior teams aren’t members of the SFA, some amateur clubs are; the whole footballing system is the most fractured in Europe. Remaking the top end of Scottish football would be like rebuilding a house without sorting out the foundations.

Rather than use words like restructuring and reorganisation, the buzzword should be rationalisation. A veneer of organisation hides what is essentially chaos. Each of the minor football associations – Junior, Welfare, Amateur, Youth – are affiliated to the SFA but create layers of management that are unneccessary and it’s time to put them all to bed. There should be one football association, the Scottish Football Association, and the rest need to quietly cease to be. Once everybody is under one banner, regional associations can then take over the management of the game at a local level, just as every sensible football association organises its affairs. Terms such as senior, junior and amateur can be reused but refer to different levels of football, not to completely different organisational affiliations as they currently do.

In the meantime, the sort of licensing that Scottish football already does could be revised and performed across every club nationwide with new standards formed.  Regions would need to be harmonised.  Currently, only the senior and junior ranks in the North are aligned.  The current picture is this:

Current SFA regions:Light Blue - North, Dark Blue - East, Sky Blue - Central, Green - South East, Beige - South West, Blue-Grey - West

Current SFA regions:
Light Blue – North, Dark Blue – East, Sky Blue – Central, Green – South East, Beige – South West, Blue-Grey – West

Senior League:Light Blue - Highland League, Green - East of Scotland League, Beige - South of Scotland League

Council areas by senior league team:
Light Blue – Highland League, Green – East of Scotland League, Beige – South of Scotland League

SJFA Areas:Light Blue - North, Dark Blue - East, Blue-Grey - West

SJFA Areas by team presence in a council area:
Light Blue – North, Dark Blue – East, Blue-Grey – West

Currently, the SFA has six regions; North, East, South East, South West and Central.  Seeing pictorially how these teams actually align makes you wonder whether the SFA have carved the country up correctly but regions are necessary.

At an elite level, to create the league that will eventually take over from the elite junior Superleagues and the Senior leagues, it would seem that the West Region could absorb the South of Scotland League.  The East of Scotland League and East Region teams south of the First of Forth seem a good fit.  The North Region and Highland League are already perfectly aligned.  The remaining East Region and EoS League clubs north of the River Forth could also take in Stirling and form a fourth Superleague.

Proposed new Superleagues:Light Blue - North, Dark Blue - East and Central, Green - South East, Blue-Grey - West and South West

Proposed new Superleague areas:
Light Blue – North, Dark Blue – East and Central, Green – South East, Blue-Grey – West and South West

The Superleagues could feature two divisions and then be fed by elite regional leagues, fulfilling the same roughly function as the junior leagues of a similar level.  While clubs need to be consulted in this change, we cannot become a slave to the clubs, as this is partially the current problem.  How can you elevate or champion wel- run clubs, when there’s a history of clubs looking out for themselves?  Banks O’Dee cried “J’accuse, Highland League clubs” when their application to join the seniors was turned down in 2009.  Self-interest belongs in the past.  If this process means clubs feel uncomfortable about their place then so be it; they’ve been comfortable too long.

The main crux of the idea is to standardise the semi-professional game and create a conduit for smaller clubs that can make the step up.  This would not be possible with simply opening up the Scottish Football League as it stands.  Also, the aim should be to make semi-professionalism regional rather than national as much as possible. Whether the SPL can seriously have 24 professional teams or if the SPL’s plan of 16-10-16 comes to fruition, it has to be accepted that there are less than 20 clubs that are professional and can support professionalism right now and the status quo cannot provide the system with any more.  There won’t be another Ross County or a lowland version of Inverness Caledonian Thistle, even a new Gretna, without new blood coming into the league regularly.

Once we have this acceptance, there needs to be an agreement that the bottom 16 or 18 SFL clubs that are outside the new top two divisions will provide the foundation of a semi-professional league that sits atop a semi-professional pyramid and provides teams to a professional league.  No false aggrandisement, it needs to be recognised for what it is.  Given I’ve already said the crux is to have semi-professionalism on a regional basis, it also needs to expand to create this regional league and this is where the licensing comes back in.

Based on their current and recent league positions and the results of licensing – encompassing facilities, plans, financing and youth structures – any club currently playing at an elite junior or senior level would be allowed to apply for a place in a new regionalised Scottish Third Division. The current SPL teams would be joined by enough teams to create two 16-team divisions.  The result would be 1-1-2-4 structure which would allow genuine change between those currently hanging out at the bottom end of Division Three currently and those teams who could reach so much higher and there lies the real aim.  Without actually trying, there’s no real idea what could happen and what anybody could be really capable of if there was a unified structure.

Ultimately, this is just the research and utterings of a fan.  I’ve long watched the Scottish scene and seen how the Scots have been left behind on several fronts.  Some things are not easily fixable and some things are.  What has to be done now is to fix what is fixable and it might make some of the other problems seem less insurmountable.  For the authorities to not sit down and do what is sensible is a dereliction of duty.  Something needs to change and fast.

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Written by Michael Farrow

December 20, 2012 at 4:55 pm

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