Scottish league restructuring: No sign of closure in debate

 

Those who hoped for some kind of closure this week in the seemingly never-ending search for a brighter future in Scottish league football have been left sadly disappointed.

Like the saga that has become Rangers' financial travails, the restructuring tale is sure to run and run after the Scottish Premier League failed to agree to a new 12-12-18 divisional format to begin next season.

One SPL chairman has told BBC Scotland that, as far as he and four other clubs are concerned, the debate ended with the Hampden vote at which Ross County and St Mirren prevented the required 11-1 majority.

Official statements from Celtic, Dundee United and Motherwell suggest exactly that - that those clubs believe they have bright futures under the present 12-10-10-10 format and that it is others who will suffer the biggest fallout.

However, the explosive nature of reactions from Aberdeen chairman Stewart Milne and Hearts chief executive David Southern - and warnings of financial implosion within the First Division - will ensure that it is a story that will linger for many months to come.

Interview - SFA chief Neil Doncaster

Their verbal wrath, aimed primarily at St Mirren chairman Stewart Gilmour and, to a lesser extent, County counterpart Roy MacGregor, have yet to be met by a detailed public defence of their actions that could even take the form of legal action.

Meanwhile, the Twitterati were out in force, with many rival fans calling for the kind of boycott of those two clubs' grounds that has already recently hit home in disputes over ticket prices and the future of financially stricken Rangers.

The conspiracy theorists have also been stung into action, with one Celtic blogger suggesting that, if it was a move to force the creation of a second tier of the SPL (SPL2) with Rangers being invited to the party, there was a determination within the Parkhead hierarchy to disappoint their city rivals and Third Division champions.

Milne, undone by the voting structure he helped to retain last year, and Southern themselves hinted at a belief in a hidden agenda, with all the clubs in the "yes camp" who have made statements so far claiming surprise at the stance of County and St Mirren when there had been months of unanimity ahead of the vote.

PROPOSED SCOTTISH LEAGUE RESTRUCTURE

  • SPL proposal was for a 12-12-18 structure
  • Top two leagues to split into three leagues of eight after 22 matches then play a further seven home and seven away games
  • Leagues would be called Premier Division, Championship and National League
  • Top eight teams to play for title and European places; middle eight to contest promotion and relegation in and out of Premier Division; bottom eight to decide who drops into National League
  • 11 out of 12 SPL clubs needed to vote in favour of plans, while the proposal required approval of 23 out of 30 SFL clubs
  • One league body to replace SPL and SFL
  • Pyramid system at the bottom to allow automatic access to the bottom tier for new clubs

They say they thought Gilmour's biggest sticking point was the 11-1 majority required for structural change and expressed astonishment that he and MacGregor had not been swayed by an offer by two clubs to alter this to 9-3, thus making it easier to change the new structure should it prove a failure.

Gilmour, who left Hampden looking shaken and angry, has not helped his own cause by his public silence.

However, exactly a week ago, St Mirren had issued a statement in which they clearly stated that they did not relish a system of breaking the top two divisions into three sections of eight midway through the season as it had failed elsewhere and was not fair to season ticket buyers.

They also pointed out that the majority of fans wanted a larger top-flight, while MacGregor had indicated that he would be guided by the wishes of his clubs fans and shareholders. Those appear to have been similar to the recent Scottish FA survey that found 87% of fans in favour of a bigger league.

Such public opinion was recognised in the wide-ranging report in the future of Scottish football published by Henry McLeish, but the former First Minister insisted that a larger league was not economically viable as he proposed two top divisions of 10 teams.

Three years on and Scottish football is still trying to reconcile those two facts.

The irony is that there is so much agreement - on the need for more promotion and relegation play-offs to add excitement, a pyramid structure to give new clubs a chance to enter the professional game, for a redistribution of wealth down the divisions and for a single league governing body.

Unfortunately, it was not only proposed in such haste that it would have rendered some present relegation and promotion battles meaningless but it was seen as an all-or-nothing package.

Interview - Aberdeen chairman Stuart Milne

SPL chief executive Neil Doncaster indicated that a new league structure was needed to attract the extra broadcasting and sponsorship interest that would allow the top-flight clubs to pay for that redistribution of wealth and accept the other changes.

"Most of my disappointment is for the First Division clubs who were really reliant on this vote going through to earn from the game the money they need to run full-time professional outfits," he said.

The future of any change could now rest with those First Division clubs, such as administration-hit Dunfermline Athletic, most of whom had indicated they were in favour of the new structure.

Celtic, who publicly backed Doncaster amid calls by some fans for him to resign, described it as "a huge missed opportunity for the whole of Scottish football" but said they themselves were in "a very healthy position" and would move on.

Dundee United chairman Stephen Thompson said: "There are no other proposals on the table and none are likely in the near future."

The Scottish Football League, whose 30 clubs would have been asked to vote on the proposal had it been approved by the SPL, now has no need to meet on Friday.

However, the SFL has stated that it is still open to change and it is likely the First Division clubs will seek talks with the SPL before or after their own league's board convenes on Thursday.

The threat of clubs resigning from the SFL to join an SPL2 has reared its head again.

Asked whether an SPL2 was possible, Doncaster would only say: "I'm not going to predict where we go from here. Anything could happen if 11 clubs at SPL level were to back the change."