Monday, December 20, 2010

Scottish Football - Surgery Required

So former First Minister Henry McLeish has concluded his study into the debacle that is Scottish Football and has opined that change is needed and needed fast, hardly a surprise. Everyone including this blog previously has an opinion on what should be done and these will be debated over the Festive period as the meeting between the clubs to discuss future plans has been postponed due to the artic conditions - the SPL it seems cannot even arrange a meeting venue with undersoil heating.

This blog has previously covered the various ailments afflicting the Scottish game and whilst no one is in any doubt that radical change is needed, does anyone think the infighting, bickering and blatant self interest can be put aside long enough to actually achieve anything?

The biggest problems Scottish football faces are the dreadful actuality of the economics and the population of the country versus the number of teams it is trying to support. Now anyone including myself would baulk at the suggestion of their football club being wound up. Everyone loves their own club and just because a team is not Barcelona or Manchester United does not make their achievements at their own level any less great to those who support that club and indeed, many lower league fans are the most loyal in the world. I for one am very proud that the club from my home town, the Inverurie Loco Works are now successfully plying their trade in the lofty heights of the Scottish Highland League.

That being said however, the Scottish Premier League is trying to keep itself on a footing with leagues around Europe. It wishes to be a first class product and it simply cannot under the current format and with the current situation. As an example, take the 'city' of Dundee, it has less than 150,000 people, yet it has two poorly supported football clubs of which one has gone into administration twice in the past decade. They both think it prudent to have their own stadiums which are literally a football pitch length away from each other. The fact that they cannot even agree to ground share let alone merge shows the nonsensical and petty differences that rule the Scottish game and hinder the chances of any progress - granted those petty differences are the reason many of us go in the first place.

Now as I have already mentioned, no one is suggesting that people just accept their clubs are for the scrap heap overnight. I would beat someone with a stick for suggesting that Rangers should merge with Celtic in order to be able to compete with Real Madrid, but the simple fact is the rest of Europe has left Scotland far behind and both precise and major surgery is required if we are not to become an utter footballing backwater.

Clubs such as Hibernian or Motherwell, even Aberdeen have recently been embarrassed in European qualifying ties (not even the competion proper) by teams we would in bygone days have giggled at. Both Celtic and Rangers - the supposed big guns - have suffered similiar fates. It is less than thirty years since both Aberdeen and Dundee United were both a force in Europe, so where has it all gone wrong?

Globalisation, too much football on television, the Premiership and a wider variety of competing entertainment have all hurt Scottish football. As discussed on this blog before, why freeze at Firhill when you can watch Barcelona and Messi on television instead? Scottish clubs are not going to suddenly go all warm and fuzzy and merge with each other as is needed so in that regard we have to work with what we have.

The size of the league is endlessly debated with the smaller clubs crying for a larger league (how can five million people seriously sustain a league in size more akin to the major countries of Europe?) and the Old Firm act in utter self interest by protecting their right to play each other four times per season as a minimum thus ensuring the gap between them and everyone else is maintained. Realistically, a ten club top division is all the country can sustain with play offs being introduced to make the promotion and relegation more interesting. The play offs in England have certainly been incredibly successful. The timing of the individual games and also the entire league itself needs to be looked at and is something that could be immediately changed. My proposals and rationale would be this.

1) A return to a ten team league without the current late season split.

This is what the country can sustain.

2) Automatic promotion and relegation for the lower league top club and Premier League bottom club.

As per the current rules.

3) A play off between the second and second last teams in the respective leauges for a second promotion/relegation berth.

This would extend interest in both the top league and the lower league later in the season and avoid many of the dead rubber fixtures that are associated with that period. The current top/bottom six split is irrelevant, relegation and promotion are real.

4) A season starting at the beginning of July with a six week complete shutdown in the Winter months from Mid December with a finish end April/early May as we currently have.

This would give Scottish football six weeks of action in both actual sunshine and out of the metaphorical shade of the English Premiership. This would also give the players the advantage of being at full fitness for the various European play offs which are now the only avenue for Scottish clubs to qualify for the full tournaments. Many of the teams faced by Scottish entrants are from other Northen countries who also have poor co-efficients but have the advantage of Summer leagues meaning they hit the ground running in the qualifiers. The Winter shutdown should hopefully avoid the worst of the weather and avoid the distractions of the festive period and clashing with a very heavy period in the English calendar. It would also serve to rest players.

Scotland has not qualified of a major football tournament in twelve years and the prospects of doing so in the short term look bleak. If we did indeed qualify for one then the start to the league could be delayed by a fortnight at the maximum but the reality is would only be affecting a handful of SPL players regardless. The arguement about people being away on Summer holidays is frivilous at best, attendances are rock bottom already so how much worse can it get?

5) The League Cup (if still required) being finished before the Winter shutdown.

It seems meangliness that we still need to sustain two Cup competions but if required, make it a seperate first half of the season tournament.

6) Friday night football.

The league has to innovate and find times when the matches can be played with less competition from other leagues, Friday night is currently pretty much free across Europe. Games for this slot should be selected sensibly with no long distance travel required for away fans.
7) A common self policed agreement amongst clubs to live within their means and revenues. All clubs must conduct a feasibility study with regard to ground sharing opportunities and with an undertaking to embark on such sharing where possible - see the City of Dundee above.

In order to get the crowds coming back, Scottish clubs have to drastically drop turnstile prices. Germany has been very successful in this regard and they have a vastly superior product. The Premiership is already pricing itself out of the market so there would seem little hope for Scottish clubs. Clubs need to drop their prices and and so therefore their costs. Even at reduced ticket prices, full stadiums lead to lots of other associated benefits from merchandising to half time pies. Groundsharing would reduce costs massively in many instances although probably not improve the quality of the pies.

All of the above can be debated endlessly and no one for sure knows the correct formula - or even if one genuinely exists. What is clear is that further delays from petty squabbles and change in the form of a token gesture will see Scotland fall farther behind and the chances of redemption even more remote. It is time to act and to do so radically.