Guestpost: the demise of Rangers offers chance to restructure and save our game

As the Scottish Football League meets to save or possibly, hasten the demise of our national game, I’m pleased to welcome a timely guest post from David Hill.  His post considers the problems facing Scottish football and usefully, offers a radical solution:

The problems of Scottish football are many but we should not be overly critical.

There is no other country of Scotland’s size supporting such professional leagues.  However, the prestige of the cash-laden English league now tends to overshadow our game and inflict unrealistic expectations on it.  Of concern is the steady diminishing of our status, though having two of our clubs as finalists in a European competition in recent years is an indicator that we can still do well.

A major problem is attendances at Scottish football matches.  Although English and Scottish football have enjoyed similar levels of attendance in the lifetime of many fans, there has been a drift away from live match attendance, but not for all clubs.  Rangers and Celtic appear to have increased their attendances in comparison to thirty years ago, but other teams enjoy a fraction of their support.  On the face of it, Old Firm success has been at the expense of the rest but it is probably more complicated than that.

Decline is not however necessarily because the product is poor. In fact, the product is better than it is usually perceived and the First Division is a highly competitive spectacle. But it is a matter of a growing perception that the product is inferior and there are at least three reasons for this:

–        Celtic and Rangers dominate;

–        our best players go elsewhere for better wages and conditions; and

–        our national game is continuously undermined by our national broadcaster.

I know of no other country in the world in which prime time television coverage is given over to the football being played in another country accompanied by the implication that this is better – and better for us.

It would be interesting to establish how much money the BBC pours in to English football compared to the proportion it gives to the Scottish product. English football inhabits a false world in which vast media cash, not attendances, provides its major  revenue.

While I understand the football authorities sold our game to commercial bidders for a better deal, I believe our national broadcaster should have been prepared to match those offers.  The result of the present arrangement – several hours of English football beamed prime time into Scottish homes several times weekly with the Scottish games relegated to mid week late night slots  – has been to seriously diminish the reputation of our own game with a resultant drop in interest.  This is another compelling reason for the devolving of broadcasting to Scotland.

It has to be said also, that promotion of our game by those who own and run it leaves a lot to be desired.  Merchandising plays too small a part: getting more people into the stadia and selling a variety of goods and service to spectators should be a bigger part of what is offered. Times have changed and a whole range of entertaining extra reasons to go to the match should be provided.

The bottom line, however, is that Scotland has a small population and so, needs a framework for the national game that is viable. There was a time when around 5% of Scotland’s total population was at the “the match” on a Saturday afternoon.  No longer.

In particular, the sight of more than half empty stadiums at televised matches is destructive.  As the home club is receiving a substantial cash benefit from TV would it not be sensible to give all season ticket holders extra free tickets for them to distribute for these matches?  And while the needs of TV have determined that matches be held at a variety of times, I suspect that the breaking of the Saturday afternoon habit hasn’t helped greatly.

Moreover, the fact that Rangers or Celtic are likely to win everything – or that perception pervades – is damaging to the health of the game.  The parasitic attitude to these two huge clubs by the other bigger clubs is destructive and has to be halted and reversed or it will eventually destroy the whole league –  including Celtic and Rangers.

Yet, paradoxically, attendances are firmer and in less decline in the First Division, because of its intensely competitive nature.  And the key to solving our footballing ills is competition.

Nearly every season, for much of the season, the SPL becomes a procession led by Celtic and Rangers with the rest a distance behind. While there may be fierce competition to get the European places and to avoid relegation, which provides a high degree of interest from committed supporters, the lack of a competitive element to win the league has resulted in the shedding of support for most of our top flight teams.

The perception that only the Old Firm can deliver sustainable success is at the root of this.  The vicious circle this produces has resulted in the stripping of local support from other teams, giving the Old Firm still more of a cash stranglehold:  perception has become reality.  And the rest of Scottish football reacts by trying to access Old Firm money by playing them or selling players to them.  This is destructive and ultimately probably fatal.

A long term effort has to be made to make these clubs better supported and self-sustaining.  And some recent highly-attended matches provide a clue to the solution:  Kilmarnock v Ayr United cup matches drew over 10,000 spectators; the Dundee United/Ross County Cup final almost filled Hampden; the Hearts v Hibs Scottish Cup Final readily filled Hampden.

Given the right circumstances and the prospect of interesting or fierce competition, supporters flock, demonstrating that our game is still viable and attractive.

Some have mooted getting rid of the Old Firm, but I do not believe that Rangers and/or Celtic going into the English leagues is the answer.  It would be bad for our domestic game and quite likely be less than productive for Rangers and Celtic who could just as easily end up like Swansea Town and might never sample European football again.

Surely the long term solution is a genuine all-European League structure accessed by all senior teams across the continent.  Admittedly, Celtic and Rangers might start in about League 5 with an opportunity to move up or down.  This Euro-League could be regionalised at the lower levels, similar to what happens in the US, where in some sports, teams play in both state leagues and national leagues.

The more immediate problem is to find ways of making our league structure more competitive, so that it provides more intense local rivalry and greater opportunity for more teams to win something, thus getting more people through the turnstiles.  Also important is the need to prevent relegation from the top division resulting in permanent irreparable damage to any team (which is a growing likelihood at the moment).

A completely different and more diverse structure is now required:  here is my plan for a regionalised Scottish league:

West

Rangers, St Mirren, Morton, Kilmarnock, Ayr United, Stranraer, Partick Thistle, Queen of the South, Annan, Queens Park, A N Other

Central

Celtic, Clyde, Motherwell, Hamilton, Airdrie, Falkirk, Stirling Albion, Albion Rovers, East Stirling, Dumbarton, A N Other

East

Hearts, Hibs, Livingston, Berwick Rangers, East Fife, Dunfermline, Alloa,  Cowdenbeath, Raith Rovers, Stenhousemuir, Forfar Athletic

North

Dundee, Dundee United, Aberdeen, St Johnstone, Inverness, Ross County, Peterhead, Elgin, Montrose, Brechin, Arbroath

These four leagues play home and away at the start of the season and the top two (or top three) in each then become the Premier League after the New Year.  The remaining clubs form into four leagues again (or any other groupings) to provide another eight teams to join the eight Premier teams in an enhanced Scottish Cup or League Cup or similar competitions. Other competitions can easily be devised to keep them active and playing.

Such a structure would provide:

·         many local derbies and highly competitive contests in the early part of the season;

·         an enhanced number of “winners”;

·         a better distribution of gate money;

·         huge interest in the Premier League as it starts each New Year with real expectation that there might be a serious challenge to the Old Firm; and

·         on opportunity every year for a number of teams to make it into the top league without the threat of potentially destructive relegation.

Fiddling about with variations on a structure which no longer works will not halt accelerating decline.  Ironically, the present disaster at Ibrox presents an opportunity to effect radical change which can save Scottish football.

This change might intially be painful but renewal is impossible without it.

 

 

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Today is D-Day for Scottish football – time to do or die

I’ve given up trying to make sense of the Rangers saga.  Suffice to say, it’s beyond mess.  Schadenfreude is in plentiful supply, but so too is sympathy.  Fellow fans recognise that for those individuals and families who have passed the mantle of supporting Rangers down through the generations, the pain is visceral and tangible.

But a view from the sidelines.  Duff and Phelps might well go down in history as the worst administators ever:  even an insolvency novice like me can sense that lots of things don’t add up in their handling of this affair.   Craig Whyte might have been the catalyst but the rotten, tax-avoiding practices were well embedded in the club’s operating culture long before he arrived.   Charles Green is not quite what he appears to be and far too many loose ends exist in his model for any fan to find anything but cold comfort.

Anyone who has played a role either as a Director or a senior employee in the club since the turn of the century does not have clean hands.  Indeed, it’s almost worse for most of them – and that includes you, Gordon Smith, with your wide-eyed protestations of innocence – to claim that they knew nothing of what was going on.  That suggests incompetence and the lot of them should be drummed out of Scottish football for good.

And then there’s the rest of Scottish football – the clubs and the governing bodies.  Some of us warned, some time ago, that failure to grasp the mettle and deal decisively with Rangers might result in the downfall of other clubs and the whole precarious edifice.  And lo, it has very nearly come to pass.

For months, dithering has been the order of the day, in the hope that somehow a miracle would transpire and clubs and authorities would not have to take the crucial decisions.  Here we are, months on and only now is an end in sight.  Yet, even though few hiding places remain, still they dither.

The SFL and SPL – the sum of football’s constituent parts, one month exactly from the start of the new season – are now contriving to pass the parcel.  The SFL met yesterday to consider whether or not to allow a New Rangers entry to Division 1 rather than Division 3 – a grubby compromise no one appears to want but everyone feels obliged to accept – blethered a while and came away with a commitment to meet again on 12 July.

Today, it’s the SPL’s turn and the wires suggest that it is minded to agree nothing until the SFL has met again on the 12th and reached its decision.  This ain’t no magic roundabout.

Now, it is not clubs, nor money men, nor key officials driving us to the denouement.  Thank goodness for the fans.  People power has at least focused the minds of chairmen and chief executives across the land and will hopefully force their hand.  Good on us.

Clubs have been pushed into doing the unthinkable in recent weeks and consulted their supporter bases.  Supporters have given their clubs their steer – No to Newco – and yet, the clubs still feel unable to act and compelled to dither.

Fans have not reached these decisions lightly.  They are well aware of the financial consequences of burying Rangers deep in Division three and they are mindful of their role as custodians of their institutions.  But it is exactly that sense of responsibility which has driven their opinion-forming.  Even if those running the game in Scotland still cling to hope that somehow, a solution will fall out of the sky, supporters have reached the inevitable conclusion that the gemme is indeed a bogey.

The only way to sort the morass, of which Rangers is the prime messy suspect but not the only one, is to start afresh.  Kicking Rangers into touch might well cause other clubs to go to the wall but a fresh start all round might be what is needed.

My own club, Kilmarnock, is one such standing at the precipice.  The wee chicklet is a Killie shareholder, courtesy of an inheritance from his late and very great Uncle Danny.  And on account of acting in proxy, me and the wee man took the last minute consultation launched last week very seriously indeed.  In trying to explain to him what the club was asking of fans and what the decision might mean for the club and for Scottish football, I found myself wondering what Danny would do.

A pragmatist, he would have been uneasy at the thought of voting potentially for his beloved club’s demise and he would have been very mindful of the economic consequences of voting No to the Newco.  But he would also have believed – as so many of us do – that fans would rally round.  Kilmarnock might face a shortfall of £300,000 in income this year if a new version of Rangers is not in the SPL, and it might require an additional 1000 season tickets to be sold to come close to plugging the gap but the Chairman has to hear his core supporters and trust in their judgement that making the right decision for the right reasons will cause the community to rally to the club’s aid.

Ultimately, Danny, like the rest of us, would opt for integrity, for the rules to be followed, for justice to be applied.  He was that kind of a man.

As so many other fans and supporters of clubs have proven to be.  Indeed, it has been life-affirming to see supporters take charge of this rudderless ship and lead the clubs where they do not want to go.  One rule for all is the core premise and by standing together, we have a chance to clean up Scottish football and put it on a footing that gives it a future.  It might not be a comfortable future but none of us is afraid of hard work.  In any event, living beyond our means – collectively and individually – has long since been unsustainable, on an emotional and a practical level.

So the fans have decided that Rangers must be allowed to die and rise again, if the club can, from the ashes of the third division.  Today, their clubs must decide;  there can be no more dithering.  They must follow their fans’ lead.  Today, it is time to do or die.

On the make and on the take

No, I haven’t had my wings clipped nor fallen out of the eyrie.  I cannot even claim that there’s been nothing worth blogging about given the week or so we’ve had.

A small matter of blogger’s block.  Of too much football on the telly.  Of discovering that the series of Borgen I thought had been deleted was in fact there, in its entirety, begging to be watched.  Of a heavy workload.  And of a cannae be arsed kinda mentality.

So what has drawn me out of my torpor to fulminate, once more?

The banks, that’s what.

You don’t need me to tell you that this is the worst week ever for banking, with the RBS software meltdown, the Barclays LIBOR fixing scandal, or the latest bout of mis-selling all jostling for position.  And even though few ever listen to the likes of us, the fact that the markets cut and run, causing share prices to plummet, confirms it.  If the barrow boys are unloading their investment from their fellow barrow boys, then it really is time to worry.

Responses have been pitiful.  There’s the Governor of the Bank of England wagging his finger, scolding and clucking.  There’s Labour in Opposition, expressing outrage and demanding a Leveson-style inquiry.  As one wag on Twitter suggested, Ed Balls was effectively demanding an inquiry into things that Ed Balls had set in train.  And then there’s the Con-Dem government.

Never lax to pursue an opportunity to justify their continuing berth in this rusting vessel, the Lib Dems, in the form of Vince Cable and Lord Oakeshott were straight into the studios to condemn and demand a tightening of the rules.  The Lib Dems are akin to a Pekinese dog in UK politics these days, snapping at their Tory masters’ heels with a particularly harsh and shrill bark that is most definitely not backed up by bite.

And then we have the PM and the Chancellor, playing it softly at first and then rising to the occasion and demanding answers from Bob Diamond on the Barclays scandal, whilst conveniently ignoring their role as the people’s equerries in the state-owned enterprise that is RBS and saying virtually nothing on the interest rate swap thingy.  Rhetoric is clearly not in short supply, though policy is.

We the people can only gape in wonder at the inevitability of it all.  After all, since 2008 – since these institutions with their cavalier approach to our money brought the whole edifice crashing down – nothing has changed.  Not a single thing.

The talk is still of a need to separate out retail from wholesale or investment banking, of preventing companies from simultaneously doing the two.  Wasn’t this the cure prescribed in 2008?  So why has nothing been done?

Tighter regulation was called for and has been promised.  Is it 2020 or thereabouts that it all kicks in?  Far too late.  Worse, the proposals have been watered down, with the British Bankers’ Association – utterly complicit, either willingly or unknowingly – in the LIBOR fixing scandal leading the resistance to greater state control and oversight over banks’ activities.  As a self-regulating body it has failed, utterly, and surely now, any suggestion that this lot can be trusted and allowed to look after their own affairs is dead in the water.

One wee nugget that has emerged – which I found interesting at least – is that those who are employed in wholesale banking – do not have to undertake an integrity test, unlike those who are employed in retail banking.  Anyone can walk in off the street, without appropriate qualifications, without meeting any fit and proper test, and get a job.

No integrity test.  Nothing to show that this one is more honest than that one or would apply certain ethical standards or inbuilt values to transactions than another before being allowed to take charge of moving and handling millions, sometimes billions of currency, albeit on computer screens, rather in actuality.

This stunned me for a moment, then not.  For isn’t such a lack of integrity evident, well everywhere, right now?

Like in football.  If there is any consolation to be had from the bankers’ mess, it isn’t that they are the only ones at it.  The supposed fit and proper test in football, Scottish football at least, seems nary to have been applied in recent years.  And worse, where governing bodies have had powers to apply their standards for running clubs, they’ve chosen not to.  Rangers is simply the highest profile example of years of ignoring dubious goings-on at clubs all around Scotland.  Rangers’ governance might have been found wanting, leading to the club’s demise, but so too have our governing bodies and associations.  The SFA and the SPL maintain that they had not an inkling of what was going on at Rangers in terms of EBTs and non-payment of debts over the last decade.  No one in the sports media knew anything either.  And they all obviously think we zip up the back.

Ian Bell writes majestically on what this latest banking calamity means for capitalism in general.   The free market experiment has failed, as has neo-liberalism.  So what now?

The obvious answer is for a swing in the pendulum back to a greater state and public sector role in economic policy.  The days of the hands-off approach are surely – this time – numbered.  But to suggest that things are by necessity or are necessarily better and cleaner in state-sanctioned activity ignores the news that this week, employees and contractors with Edinburgh City Council were arrested and charged with corruption, fraud and money-laundering offences, in relation to the private factoring scandal.

We’re a few years into this investigation and the scale keeps on growing, with more arrests and charges expected:  this could turn out to be the biggest ever corruption scandal in Scotland’s public sector.  And surely, what is being uncovered here, demands proper audit and scrutiny of practice elsewhere.

So, no easy panacea in switching to greater state control over markets, economic activity and wealth creation.  Everyone, it would appear, is on the make and on the take.  There are as many individuals in our ken guilty of petty and not so petty pilfering, in so many different ways that it is difficult not to conclude that our whole polity, our collective and individual values base, is rotten to the core.

The bankers at Barclays, and those soon to be exposed at other banks, as well as the likes of Jimmy Carr and Gary Barlow with their breath-taking tax avoidance schemes, simply expose greed, graft, recklessness and disrespect for the common currency of societal engagement on a larcenous scale.  And it tends to result less in self-reflection among we lesser beings of our own standards of behaviour in order to raise them, but more a determination to get in on the action too.  Individualism is incestuous.

What’s the answer?  Darned if I know.  But change is needed and soon.