League Reconstruction: If it ain’t broke…

April 7, 2017

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How many teams should be involved in the top flight of Scottish Football? 12? 16? 20? Should we just have a big 42 team Royal Rumble at Hampden every year? Most people seem to have a different opinion on it, rarely though, does that involve keeping the SPFL’s current setup of a 12 team Premiership. Why is that? One assumes it’s because the grass is always greener on the other side. We’re always looking at ways to make Scottish Football a more exciting and compelling product, so it’s only natural that league structure is regularly discussed. There’s not much wrong with what we currently have though, and here’s why we should be sticking with it for a wee while yet.

The biggest argument that seems to be made for reconfiguring the league is competitiveness. We need a top flight that provides excitement and cut-throat battles every season. What many don’t seem to realise is, well, we already do. This season you would struggle to find an overall more competitive league in Europe. That is of course excluding Celtic, who I’ll come on to later on. Out with them however, everybody is fighting for something. Whether that be Aberdeen and Rangers to be the “best of the rest,” Hearts, St Johnstone & Thistle slugging it out for top six, or the rest of the league in a relegation battle. In previous seasons Dundee United and St Mirren have been special kinds of dung and rooted themselves to the bottom of the league for the majority of the campaign, but above them the stramashes to avoid the dreaded playoff spot continued all season. Inverness looked utterly doomed early on, but have clawed themselves back into it and given us a situation in which half of the entire league could realistically get relegated. The split, for all its detractors, is once again going to create some very exciting do or die fixtures for these clubs, meaning most clubs will have meaningful games right to the end. Isn’t that exactly what we’re wanting?

What a lot of people mean when they talk about “competitiveness” however is challenging Celtic, giving the Scottish Premiership a proper title race. That would be great, but it just isn’t a realistic possibility. It doesn’t matter how many, or how few teams you put in the league – Celtic are still going to have greater resources and better players than everyone else. There’s an argument often trotted out that facing different teams would make it more difficult for Celtic, different stadiums, different players to contend with etc. But, it’s nonsense. You would in fact risk making it even easier for them by taking away games against the traditional big guns in Rangers, Aberdeen and Hearts and instead giving them opposition like Raith Rovers and Falkirk that they’d have an easier time beating. Celtic’s domination is of no fault of the league set-up. They’re a giant fish in a relatively small pond, just like Rangers. We are far from unique in having one or two teams head and shoulders above the rest, as I discussed in my What’s the point of Scottish Football? piece. This is very much a European-wide problem and one that Uefa must tackle with regards to redistributing wealth, there is very little we can actually do about it. With regards to the Old Firm, Scottish Football’s TV deal is worthless without at least 4 meetings between them a season. As sad as that is, it is the reality, and bosses would never agree to cutting the number of Old Firm games a season, even if it’s a very short-sighted way of thinking.

The biggest cries for league re-shaping have come in recent years, when some of Scottish Football’s bigger clubs have found themselves out of the top flight. You hear it every time there’s a big Championship crowd, a thrilling televised game, or when one of the top flight teams attracts a pitiful attendance. Pundits clamouring for the likes of Hearts, Rangers, Dundee and now Hibs, Falkirk, Dunfermline and even the two Renfrewshire clubs to be allowed into the top flight for the game’s greater good. There are those who are guilty of being wowed by 16,000 or so turning up to see Hibs vs Dundee United on a Friday night in the second tier without thinking about why there’s so many people actually there. It’s because these teams are fighting for something they wouldn’t normally get to, a league title. They have the chance to be the undisputed top dogs of a division, which they’d never normally get the chance to so long as the Old Firm exist. Do these people honestly think 16,000 would turn up on a freezing Friday night if it was simply eighth-placed Hibs against 14th-placed Dundee United? Not a chance. I understand the calls for wanting traditional bigger clubs in the top flight like Dunfermline and Falkirk in place of say, Hamilton and St Johnstone, I understand it, but you can’t just put them in there because they have more fans turning up for games. It is not Hamilton’s fault that Dunfermline have been run like a circus or that Falkirk bottled it in the playoff final. These teams are in the top flight because they’re well run and deserve to be there, they shouldn’t be vilified like they are for having smaller crowds.

In relation to crowds, one of the other supposed plus points of a bigger top flight is the opportunity to play different teams. I’d much rather we didn’t have to play the same teams four times a season, and I don’t doubt it has an effect on attendances. In fact, East Stirling who have dropped into the Lowland League have actually seen an increase in their away attendances (which were modest to begin with) but an increase nonetheless, all because they’re travelling to new grounds and facing different opponents more often. It’s a double-edged sword for top flight teams though. Yes, you’d have more opponents, but you also risk the chance of more dead rubbers. If it came down to playing a different team for hee haw, or the same one for the fourth time that season but with something on the line, I know which one I’d choose.

Argentina recently restructured their Primera Division to include 30, yes 30, teams in it. It has been an unmitigated disaster. There are much larger issues in Argentinian football surrounding the AFA, particularly them being unable to pay teams TV money, but the new league system certainly hasn’t helped them. The quality the further down the league you go takes a remarkable dip and there are teams and players that weren’t prepared and just aren’t suited to top-flight football. Plans to take it down to 20 teams are already being put in place. Incredibly, some people in Scotland are still convinced we should just have a 20-team Premiership, like England. The quality towards the bottom of the Scottish Premiership isn’t great as is, introducing more teams to that would be disastrous. We simply don’t have the money to make it sustainable and worthwhile. It would also pretty much kill off the Championship, and that would be a crying shame.

What you have to bare in mind is, I’m a Greenock Morton supporter. I’ve never seen my team play top-flight football and I still hope that one day soon us and St Mirren will be slugging it out amongst the big boys. But… I want the club to earn its place there. I certainly don’t want to be handed a place in the top flight. I want us to fight our way out of the league, then go into a top flight we have a realistic chance of competing in. St Johnstone and Partick Thistle are the models that all smaller clubs should be following. St Johnstone in particular have shown what a good manager, with good players at his disposal can achieve, no matter the size of the club. The current league set-up, at all levels, allows well-run clubs to progress and achieve relative success (the Premiership playoff aside, which is being addressed next season). If clubs like Morton, like St Mirren, like Dunfermline get their acts together, they can go and compete. They shouldn’t be handed anything because they’d “add” to the top flight, and I sincerely hope they aren’t.

It is not perfect, it never will be. For right now though, a 12-team top flight works well and gives us meaningful games all season long. Yes Celtic dominate it, but they always have and always will. It doesn’t matter what changes around them. Right now, we have an exciting Premiership, Championship, League One and League Two that include everything you’d want a football league to. Perhaps we could be looking at European play-off systems like the ones in place in Holland and Belgium to spice things up a bit more, it’s certainly worthy of discussion, but in terms of the actual league structure, I struggle to see us finding anything that works better than what we already have. It’s great that we’re always looking to innovate and make the Scottish game better, but I think this is one area we’ve got it pretty much spot on in.

By Evan McFarlane (@EvanMcFarlane)

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