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Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Would SPL reconstruction be in football's interests?

The BBC website yesterday reported that "Scottish Premier League clubs are moving towards a 10-team top tier after appearing to rule out an extension to the current 12-team set-up... SPL chairman Ralph Topping said clubs believe that a 16 or 18-team league is not financially viable [and] a working party has proposed two divisions of 10 and a vote is expected at the next gathering on 17 January."

So, what's the big deal? It's not the first time the SPL has reconstructed itself and anyone who has observed Scottish football over the last 20 years could tell you that there's been an ongoing debate about whether a 10-team or 12-team league is best.

This time, however, it's a bit different. Managers of a number of SPL teams have openly expressed their concerns. Fans and supporters groups have made it explicitly clear they would prefer a larger rather than a smaller top flight.

Topping claimed that a larger league was "unworkable", arguing that "a 16-team league wouldn't work economically and it would have a knock-on effect in terms of the quality of players you can attract."

Aberdeen's chairman Stewart Milne supports reducing the SPL to ten member teams.
"Each of the options has been fully evaluated and the one that delivers way above any of the others is a 10-team league," he said. "I don't think there is any other option. It delivers on a financial front, it delivers on a football front."

What Milne and his ilk have failed to do however is consult with the supporters. He admits that "there is a big selling job to be done with the media and the fans" but doesn't see fit to explain why a decision is likely to be made before anything resembling a consultation occurs.

SPL chief executive Neil Doncaster also spoke of the economic argument against a 16 or 18-team top division, saying it would "involve the decimation of finances in Scottish football...the cake gets much smaller and is cut into more slices...from a TV point of view, there would be less money coming into the game."

This neatly sums up the self-preserving attitude of those proposing a smaller SPL. It's about money; not the game or the fans. These people are not acting in the interests of the sport, but in the narrow interests of their own clubs. It's simply not true to say there would be "less money coming in to the game" and someone as senior as the chief executive should really know better than to make such patronisingly false comments. What will happen is that the cash in Scottish football will be distributed more evenly among more teams - obviously it is this prospect that upsets the Aberdeens and St Johnstones of the world who want to cement their place in football's elite at the expense of others.

The notion that Queen of the South, Raith Rovers and Morton would participate in an enlarged SPL actually excites me. For a start, we could have some decent sides coming to Cappielow! Not to mention the reduced number of fixtures, thus allowing for a winter break.

Interestingly, today's Daily Record revealed that the chairmen of Dundee United, Kilmarnock, Hearts and Inverness Caledonian Thistle are opposed to the proposals, making it unlikely that the SPL will secure sufficient votes to approve the proposals at a meeting of clubs on 17th January. Let's hope sanity prevails. The TV companies might want a 10-team SPL, but it's been tried before and didn't work. The fans don't want it. And a third of SPL chairmen don't want it.

I don't accept the argument that extending the number of teams will dilute the quality of the SPL. The simple reason that teams currently outside the SPL might lack quality is that they are consistently deprived of funds. Cutting the cake into more slices, far from having a detrimental effect on the game, could actually have the effect of improving the game more generally. The likes of Morton would definitely benefit (not that this in itself is sufficient reason!) and, I imagine, a fairer spread of TV revenues would allow some clubs to invest in their grounds and communities. Again, Morton fans would hardly be complaining!

Neil Doncaster's attitude towards Scottish football is both shocking and predictable. For him, the SPL is simply a commodity and subservience to the interests of TV companies is paramount. He sees the game only in terms of attracting sponsorship and income for the most upwardly-mobile clubs.

Some of us - especially those of us who understand that the game is about so much more than money - bring our democratic values to the sport we love. It is not for twelve chairmen to decide the future on the SPL without even a passing word in the direction of supporters' groups, or for that matter the chairmen of SFL clubs who will be affected by the decision. Fans must be allowed a greater role in shaping the future of Scottish football and should be more actively involved in crucial decision-making processes. Channels could be created by which official supporters' associations become statutory consultees, allowing the powers that be to be made more accountable. Freezing them out like this serves no-one's interests and simply shows how little Scottish football has moved on organisationally in the last hundred years or so.

The Daily Record noted the objections of four chairmen and reported that "civil war breaks out". That's overstating it a bit. But if the SPL obstinately presses ahead with this unpopular proposal in the face of strong objections from fans then a civil war is an inevitability.

There are many who complain about the lack of real democracy in Britain's political system. Such criticisms are often justified. But, compared to the bureaucratic, closed and self-interested way the SPL is being run the House of Commons is a bastion of people power!

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