No, that’s not a possible formation for an entire American Football team. It’s the latest frankly baffling proposal to reorganise the Scottish Premier League (SPL) and Scottish Football League (SFL) into something more coherent than the current 12-10-10-10 structure, which now appears to be going to a vote among the SFL clubs at the end of January.
There is no doubt that the current system is not fit for purpose, and the Rangers issues of the summer were supposed to open informed debate as to how this lack of fitness could be rectified. At the moment, each side in the 12-team SPL plays one another 3 times (2 home, 1 away), before the split occurs after 33 games (usually in late March/early April of a season). The sides in each set of 6 then play one another once more, giving a grand total of 38 games in a season. The split is arbitrary, and the top league is simply too small. The 10-10-10 in the SFL is no better – in the Scottish Second Division (where East Fife currently reside), only 4 of the 10 places currently don’t provide the possibility of either promotion or relegation. The divisions as they stand are simply too small to allow good clubs the time to grow organically and develop local talent.
The new plan is no better, particularly for the top two leagues. The SPL’s proposal, which is apparently now being foisted on the SFL, is for two top divisions of 12 (there’s that number again) clubs. Each side in the Scottish Premier League and the newly-anointed Scottish Championship (SPL2 by another name) will play the other home and away, bringing a total of 22 matches.
Then, the two divisions of 12 will split to become 3 leagues of 8 and the points for each side reset to zero. Thereafter the top 8 in the SPL will fight it out for the title and the European places, the bottom 4 in the SPL and top 4 in the Championship will decide who goes into the SPL for the next…bit of a season, and the bottom 8 in the Championship will fight against relegation to the new National League (formerly the Second Division, and at 18 teams that is a good size), with each side in each mini-league again playing one another home and away.
I have a series of problems with this proposal (as you might expect). Firstly, this idea has been tried before – in Austria from the mid-1980s until it was abandoned for the start of the 1993-94 season, and in neighbours Switzerland from 1987 right up to 2003. Both have now adopted a 10-team top league (which to my mind isn’t a solution either but I’ll let that slide), with no pointless splits. You get the feeling (admittedly a slightly Teutonic-effiency-sterotype-based feeling) that if it didn’t work in those countries, it ain’t going to work in Ecosse.
The only current league format which is perhaps analogous to the proposed Scottish structure (without going into Apertura and Clausura territory in the Americas) is that of the Belgian top flight. The 16 team top-flight plays each other once at home and once away, bringing a total of 30 matches. The top 6 then breaks into a play-off system to decide the title winner, with each time again playing the other twice. At the other end of the table, the sides in 15th and 16th duke it out over 5 games (akin to the American play-off system for the World Series or the Stanley Cup), with the loser being relegated. The side in 15th then enters a further play-off with the sides in 2nd, 3rd and 4th from the second tier to decide the final place in the top league (the Pro League).
This clearly isn’t ideal either – for a kick-off I’ve wasted 100 words explaining the odd system of another country. And this is where my second concern comes in; I think if there’s too much to the format, and too much debate over the intricacies of the format, then the format becomes the story, not the clubs and the players involved. This time next year then, if this dog of a system is voted through, the talk will be about one club or another avoiding the bottom 4 in the SPL and achieving a “top 8” place for the second half of the season. How enthralling.
To my mind, the solution is a simple one, and can be split into 3 points (not three leagues):
1. There should be two leagues. One of the arguments being made by the SFL/SPL is that a 16 team top league gives 4 less home games per season for the first tier sides. Well, why not make it a 20 team league if that’s the concern, and have the 19 home games. It could lead to some interesting results as the format beds in, but as Rangers’ sojurns in the Third Division this season have shown, there is perhaps more depth to the Scottish game than people think. Two leagues, one of 20 and one of 22, would certainly work better (in my view) than the current bizarre structure being proposed, and addresses the issue of the format being the focus. I think 16 is the ideal – it works for Portugal (to a point) and Portugal has a similar club dynamic to Scotland (though with 3 rather than 2 dominant clubs), but can understand the commercial reluctance to go for this. 20 clubs in the top league provides the right balance.
2. Put in a pyramid system. This may in the end come to bite East Fife on the bottom, but it needs to happen, and will at least serve to freshen up the leagues a little. A 22 team second tier would start with perhaps one relegation place to a Scottish Conference, with a second place coming in in due course. The Conference would be made up of the best sides of the Highland, East of Scotland and South of Scotland leagues – relegation from that Conference would see those sides go back into those leagues. A Conference might even, whisper it, involve the best Junior teams as they cotton onto the prize of actually getting to play in the Scottish Football League some day rather than a bit of a token invite to the Scottish Cup. The lack of relegation in the current set-up breeds complacency – a pyramid would encourage some competition in the lower SFL, and help to improve the grass roots game in the country as the pyramid structure moves down through the non-league, junior and amateur set-ups.
3. Don’t just amalgamate the SFL and SPL (as is being proposed) – put the whole lot under the umbrella of the Scottish Football Association. A country of Scotland’s size needs only one governing body for the sport (we’re about to have one police service and one fire service, after all), and doing so should, among other things, help the SFA to use the leagues to prioritise the needs of the national team (or at least have greater control over those needs than currently).
12-12-18 is not a solution. The fact Gordon Smith is boasting about coming up with it during is tenure as SFA chief executive should be enough to ward off the SFL clubs in and of itself, particularly bearing in mind that Smith previously sought to compare a real issue of 1,500 people losing their jobs at Hall’s in Broxburn with the not quite as big issue of a famous football club going bust. In July, when the debate raged as to which league the newco Rangers would end up in, clubs listened to their fans and Rangers were made to start again in the fourth tier. One only hopes they listen as hard to the growing dismay at this proposal being foisted on the country’s lower league clubs – which of course now count Rangers (temporarily) among their number.
As always, comment and debate welcomed.