One side effect of the December snow in Scotland, aside from Mrs Williamson and myself not getting to see our beloved Rangers on my Xmas trip home, was the postponement of the SPL brain trust’s gathering to discuss league reconstruction (again). That meeting was finally held earlier this week, though decisions are still a few weeks away.
The story so far is that the SPL formed a “strategy group” to consider league reconstruction, and that they brought forward the suggestion of two leagues of 10: SPLs 1 and 2. Subsequently, the six teams who “weren’t” represented on the strategy group got a bit huffy about it, but emerging from the meeting this week, the SPL chairman Ralph Topping appeared confident the proposal would pass.
Topping’s full-time job is chief executive of the bookmakers William Hill, but I hope he didn’t wander into one of his shops and bet his undoubtedly large house on that outcome. For only 24 hours after Allan Mackie in The Scotsman reported that there were “no other alternatives on the table” and that maintaining the current setup was “out of the question”, his colleague Stephen Halliday was reporting that Dundee United chairman Stephen Thompson was dead set against the plan and had up to three other teams backing him. Any change needs an 11-to-1 supermajority to pass, so this would kill the reform stone dead.
Throw into the mix the results of a fan poll, with almost 90% against a ten-team league, and it really seems like the fine institution of Scottish football is being led by men from another fine Scottish institution – Carstairs.
The SPL clubs are due to meet again on the 17th – a week from Monday – to make a decision on the reconstruction proposal. They’re also due to agree (or not) whether to implement a winter break and a July start to the season, though the fate of those items should surely depend on how many teams are in the league (you would think).
The same survey, which showed 88% of fans opposed to a ten team premiership, also showed 77% favouring a 16- or 18-team top division – something the SPL have explicitly ruled out because they do not believe it is financially viable.
And this gets to the nub of the issue, to my mind. What is it that we want from our football league, and what are we willing to give up to get that?
Do we want a truly competitive league where the gap between the Old Firm and the rest is minimised, and what little wealth there is in Scottish football is shared as widely as possible? Then we should go for an 18-team setup.
What would this vision of Scotland look like? Teams only get to play Rangers and Celtic twice per season, so (facing facts) revenues will shrink for all teams – including the Old Firm themselves, remember. TV money will reduce – it’s only the Old Firm that Sky are interested in – so Scottish teams will find it harder to attract and keep their top players, and our clubs will become even less competitive in Europe. Football League of Wales, anyone?
Looking on the bright side: this will flatten out the revenue between clubs and thus increase competition – though there will be an increased number of meaningless mid-table end-of-season games.
Or do we want a tighter top league which will focus the pennies on a smaller set of clubs, giving financial stability for the lucky top ten? Then we should go for the strategy group’s recommendation of “ten and ten” in SPLs 1 and 2.
This would mean even less competition at the top. Sure, clubs which fall out of the SPL would get increased ‘parachute payments’ – but parachutes are for emergencies. Only clubs confident of long-term top-flight status would be able to take risks, so Scotland’s small pool of potential trophy-winning teams will shrink further in size as clubs bouncing between the SPLs focus on mere survival.
Having said that, the lucky few would be guaranteed a greater share of the TV pool, and two visits per year from Rangers and Celtic, so maybe, just maybe, these top teams would reap reward enough to improve our European competitiveness.
And that’s what it comes down to for me. Do we want an 18-team league that’s interesting within Scotland, but without the resources to make an impact on the continent? Or should we circle the wagons and sacrifice our wee clubs to make our bigger teams better? Because I can’t see a way to do both. Can you?