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:
Rangers, St Mirren, Morton, Kilmarnock, Ayr United, Stranraer, Partick Thistle, Queen of the South, Annan, Queens Park, A N Other
Celtic, Clyde, Motherwell, Hamilton, Airdrie, Falkirk, Stirling Albion, Albion Rovers, East Stirling, Dumbarton, A N Other
Hearts, Hibs, Livingston, Berwick Rangers, East Fife, Dunfermline, Alloa, Cowdenbeath, Raith Rovers, Stenhousemuir, Forfar Athletic
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.