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Saturday, 30 July 2011

Scottish 'Fitba Reforms

Radical reforms are needed to revive Scottish football

As Scottish football gears up for another season, with a week still to go before we even reach August, reform is still very much in the air.

Scotland is without a doubt utterly obsessed with its national pastime. More people attend SPL games per head of population than any other league in the world and our footballing capital, Glasgow can boast 3 football specific stadiums with capacities north of 50,000, only Istanbul can match this.

Combine this level of fanaticism, with the crucial role played by our “wee” nation during footballs infant years, (“football came from Scotland” is the Tartan Army’s retort to football’s coming home) and logically we should have a thriving, absorbing spectacle that is the envy of more populous nations.

The reality though is quite different. The national side which used to compete regularly (if not successfully) at World and European competitions, has not been to a major tournament since France ’98, a whole generation of tartan army foot soldiers have been denied the opportunity to spend two weeks semi-naked, and vomiting while simultaneously trying to convince any passing Dutch/Swedish female fans to join them in the city centre fountain they have claimed in the name of the Kingdom of Fife tartan army. In terms of club football, our UEFA co-efficient is not only low, but is heading toward the, you’d be as well not bothering level, alongside the other Celtic leagues.

Now UEFA and FIFA statistics on team performance should be taken with a pinch of salt (England are apparently the 4th best international side in the world!) and to be honest what I find more damming is I cannot remember the last time I heard someone (excluding SFA/SPL employees) saying something positive about Scottish football.

No wonder then that reform is Scottish football’s “buzzword”.  Our former First Minister and (more impressively?) ex East Fife player, Henry McLeish, was recently charged with conducting a review into Scottish football and coming up with a series of recommendations aimed at returning some of our past glories. The first part of the review focussed on youth development and raised many pertinent issues, some which are beginning to be acted upon (the appointment of the Dutchman Mark Votte as SFA performance director is in particular a step in the right direction). In the second phase of the review Mr McLeish focussed on the ‘here and now’, this is where the arguments have started, and the media spotlight has shone brightest.

A lot of what is said in this second part of the report makes sense. The re-introduction of a winter break would be welcomed by most, and a reduction in the number of administrative bodies is long overdue.  What has really piqued the interest of fans up and down the country though, is the proposals referring to league re-construction.

Two leagues of ten, SPL1 and SPL2, a league of fourteen, a league of sixteen, relegation playoffs, championship playoffs, split, no split. Throw this combination of words and numbers together in any way you see fit and what you get will probably match one of the ideas debated by Scottish Footballs governing bodies. McLeish’s report favoured an SPL1 and 2 each with 10 teams where playoffs to decide relegation/promotion would be utilised. At the time of writing this seems to have been rejected (although to be honest it’s bloody hard to keep up).

The plan to save our national game seems to involve little more than adjusting a number somewhere between ten and the mid-teens. Numbers are important in this debate however, namely 5.2million (Scotland’s population) and forty two (the number of League clubs in Scotland). Put bluntly there are too many clubs competing for the attention (and cash) of a small and dwindling audience. Scottish football is being weighted down by clubs that really have no business being part of the league set-up.

There are far too many clubs who are allowed to cling onto existence purely because they are football clubs. There financial results make them unviable as businesses and they do very little to enthuse their supports (the most recent average attendance figures for div3 I could find showed under 500 passed through the gates per game). The problem is that these clubs can do no more than ‘tread water’, occasionally a ‘sugar daddy’ will come along, plough in some funds and the club will have its moment in the sun only to fall spectacularly back to earth, remember both Livingston and Gretna have represented Scotland in European competition in recent years, Gretna no longer exist and Livingston are in the midst of a long slog through the divisions. Most clubs in Scotland have nothing to play for and there is nothing to encourage them to strive for anything beyond the status-quo.

We should be discussing a top division of 16 teams with a 30 game season, a second division of 10 teams with a play-off system between the two leagues. The lower leagues could be regionalised (as McLeish proposes) but they should be run in summer months when the top two leagues are dormant, Celtic and Rangers should be encouraged to enter their reserve teams in these regional leagues (Celtic in one, Rangers in the other, swapping every year). Attendances, revenue and ambition would all increase for those at the bottom of the footballing pyramid, combine this with a play-off system between the winners of the two regional divisions (Celtic and Rangers B teams would not be allowed to win promotion) and the bottom placed second division side and almost every club would have something to play for, and a more importantly a reason to improve.

Alongside these proposals we should be trying to make SPL TV a viable alternative to Sky and ESPN and the ‘pocket change’ TV deal we were forced into. Clubs that are failing should be left to die or even more controversially encouraged to merge, this is undoubtedly unpopular but surely one thriving club is better for an area than one mediocre and one on its knees? (The city of Dundee I’m looking at you).

Scottish football must be streamlined, incompetence should not be tolerated and equally innovation must be encouraged, and rewarded. We can no longer afford to carry the deadweight that is dragging the game down. It is time for difficult decisions to be made, without pandering to sentimentality.

Once the current proposals are debated and watered down they will amount to no more than re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Scotland’s population is the most obese in Europe (must be all those ‘Killie pies and East End Park bridies) and our national game is similarly overburdened, it’s time for a crash diet.

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