The idea of “lower leagues” came about just a couple of years into the league setup. The first incarnation of a second division came into being in 1893, but promotion and relegation was not decided on the football field. A ballot would be held to decide a club’s fate. Reminds me of the early years of the SPL.
“Can we come in?”
“Naw, your stadium sucks.”
“But we won the league!”
This second division lasted until the First World War, when it was suspended – which is odd, since the top division carried on regardless. Indeed, the second tier did not start up again until 1921, almost three years after the war had ended. Maybe they forgot about them. Automatic promotion came in to being in 1922, with a third division being introduced in 1923… which then fell apart due to a heavy financial burden. Sounds a lot like the last few years. Gretna, Airdrieonians, Clydebank and any number of teams in administration.
So it was back to two divisions until the Second World War stopped football altogether. Various unofficial leagues carried on through the war years but there were bigger issues to deal with. When the league returned in 1946 it was once more as three tiers. The third tier was not only regionalised, but also included reserve teams. Sounds like some of the plans the SPL mentioned at the end of last year. Maybe it’s where Henry McLeish got the ideas.
Once more, this third tier did not last long, and by 1955 the third tier was once again abolished, the reserves were banished and the top two tiers were expanded once more. The league ran with an 18 team top tier and a 20 team second tier… at least until Third Lanark’s demise in 1967. The second tier then carried on with 19 teams and this odd number remained until the next big shake up in 1975.
There’s folklore that says the new system came into being to try and generate more interest. With Celtic winning the league every year, attendances were dropping. The clubs thought that a tighter league with less teams playing more frequently might help raise interest once more, as well as much needed revenue of course. The whole irony of this being that the final year of the 18 team league saw Celtic final dethroned for the first time in a decade.
For me, this is when Scottish Football shot itself in the foot. Until this point in time, Scottish teams had been competitive in Europe. The Scottish international team was a force to be reckoned with. Jock Stein was once told that he should play his strongest team against any opposition. Jock, of course, told them he was the only man that could judge what his strongest team was. The fact the reserves them pumped the team they were playing probably helped back him up with that mind you.
But there’s a key point for me. The old setup allowed the top teams to blood their new talent in the league. Once every team became a bigger team, that opportunity vanished, and perhaps with it a generation or two has been lost. It has taken the bigger teams to be so skint that they have a squad so small they have no choice but to “pitch in the youth”.
The counter-argument to this is the early 80s, and the era of the “New Firm”. Aberdeen and Dundee United were battling it out for silverware on the domestic front, but more importantly they were doing so on the European front too. Aberdeen’s Cup Winners Cup triumph in 1983 was followed by a Super Cup win, as well as Dundee United’s ultimately unsuccessful run to the UEFA Cup final in 1987. Does this prove that the new setup worked?
Well… not for me. It proves the two teams had a decent five year spell where Rangers were a mess and Celtic were preparing for one. Rangers were rubbish in the early 80s – echoing the Hibernian manager’s words of a decade earlier – and they weren’t a force again until David Murray came in and threw money at things. Celtic were slower in reorganising, but from the mid-90s onwards it’s been a two team show once more. That’s despite more reorganising to a four tier structure in 1994. That made no odds at the top tier, if anything it tightened the grip of the two. Indeed, Celtic and Rangers are more dominant now than at any other time in the history of Scottish Football.
It’s easy to say it’s just the money but I think the setup we have is a lot to blame. Currently, the majority of SPL teams almost accept that they won’t take anything from Celtic and Rangers. When you play each of them four times a season – which anyone in the top six of the current setup would do – they are effectively writing off 8 games of a 38 game season. That’s 24 points.
Think about how it used to be when they only played Celtic and Rangers twice each. Okay, there were only 2 points for a win back then, but even now they’d only be talking about 12 points over four games in the course of a 34 game season if it were the old 18 team league. Factor in that they may raise their game to play one of the big two and they might just take something. Yes they’ve lost four games, but so have Celtic and Rangers.
Look at that from the perspective of the team current sitting third in the SPL now – Hearts. They’ve been getting praised for going on a run which has seen them beat pretty much everyone else in the SPL. They even beat us at Tynecastle. Their problem? They need to play Rangers another three times and us another twice. It almost doesn’t matter that they’re beating everyone else.
Okay, so that would be the case if they only had to play Celtic and Rangers twice too, but by giving them four games against us each instead of two, you’re halving the effectiveness of their good game where they take something off us. If we beat them another twice, they’ve take 3 out of 12 off us – 25% – rather than 3 out of 6 – 50%.
So, what would you rather have as a Hearts fan? Lots of games against Celtic and Rangers where you and your fellow fans almost expect things to go wrong, where the game is on the telly so you stay in the house? Or would you rather have a decent chance of actually winning the league? Imagine how much interest you would get from the rest of your fan base then. Not to mention imagine the interest the likes of Sky would have in the SPL if someone other than Celtic or Rangers might win it. That’s got to add value to the league.
There’s the problem. The people running the setup currently are too short sighted. They’re too focused on their own short term needs they don’t look at the bigger picture. It’s all about “how can we make lots of money now” instead of “how can we make this league more appealing”. They tell us that Sky wouldn’t be interested in a bigger league, but lets face it, Sky are only interested in Celtic and Rangers. They don’t care who they’re playing, they know the fans will watch anyway. No, it’s more about ensuring that what Sky do pay is split as few ways as possible.
This is why we have 12 SPL clubs that can’t agree on the best way to screw as much money out of the others. You have teams suggesting an SPL title playoff. That gives them a chance at the title when they don’t deserve it, while also trying to get more money out of the big two. It also bizarrely brings about a greater likelihood of a Celtic v Rangers title deciding match, something the SPL have been anal about avoiding in recent years. We have teams suggesting a 10 team league so the money gets split less ways, a 14 team league with an 8/6 split so more teams can milk the large away attendances of Celtic and Rangers, a 14 team league with a 6/8 split so less teams get that large away attendance advantage…
No one is listening to what the fans want though. The fans have overwhelming said a bigger league where teams play each other just twice is what they want. Most bizarrely, Uncle Walter has his own plan which seems to suit everyone. It doesn’t make any sense, but the media will no doubt listen to him anyway because Walter is a wise old sage who knows what’s best for everyone. He says he wants two leagues of ten for a few years in an effort to make the lower half more competitive with the financial boost they would get, and then when that’s done we go with a top 18.
Well for starters, we already have a lower 10. Nobody pays for live coverage of it currently. What on earth makes the SPL, Walter, the media et al think Sky would want to cover an SPL2? It would be the same teams that are in it now! Not that it’s a bad thing mind you. As far as I can see, it’s actually quite a competitive league, even if the quality isn’t the greatest. In fact, four of the teams in there have played in the SPL in the last few years.
Falkirk went down last season. Dunfermline were last in the top flight in 2007, Dundee went down in 2005 following Partick Thistle from the year before that. Interestingly, all four of them are in the top six spots in the First Division currently – at least until Dundee’s financial punishment appeal is heard and they get deducted a massive amount of points. We have 12 in the top tier now. Why not take those other six and give Walter his 18 team league now? Sure, Raith Rovers and Queen of the South are the other two. Raith haven’t done much in recent years having dropped out the top flight in 1997 but they’re fighting for promotion even now and may come up next season on their own merits. And sure, Queen of the South haven’t been in the top flight since the 1975 reconstruction, but weren’t they in the Scottish Cup final a couple of years ago? In fact, Ross County are in that division too and they were in the cup final last season!
The other teams that were once in the SPL are the now defunct Gretna, and Livingston who are currently sitting top of the second division having suffered their own financial punishment. So even they could be back in the first division in time for the reorganisation. But at some point in the last decade there have been 18 teams in the SPL. So why not have them all there at the same time?
Walter’s long term plan doesn’t need the middle bit. He seems to imply that the teams outwith the SPL aren’t good enough. Well, what happened to the last team that came up? Inverness went the whole of 2010 without losing an away game, and that included trips to Celtic Park and Ibrox. I think they can handle the step up. And if they can do it, there’s no reason others can’t too.
But what of us? Every other team in the SPL is doing things for their own selfish needs, what about our needs? Well, by the turn of the year we had already played Inverness three times, thanks to the SPL scheduling and the League Cup draw. There’s nothing to say we won’t play them another twice in the League and there’s always the potential for meeting them a further twice in the Scottish Cup if you include a replay! Who wants to play the same team SEVEN times in a season?
Do we want to play more teams that turn up and put eleven men behind the ball? Does it matter? After all, most of the teams we play do that! Does it really matter which players in which strips they are? Putting that to one side, wouldn’t you like more variety in which grounds you visit if you’re an away fan?
And what of games against Rangers? Okay, so we only play them twice in the league in a larger top division, but doesn’t that make the games all the more special? We’ve only just beaten them at Ibrox and already it doesn’t seem too long until we play them again. It kinda takes the shine off it a little knowing there’s another one on the horizon.
No matter what reconstruction we get though, several things are practically guaranteed. We’ll have done it before, those that run it will find a way to make it controversial in some way, we’ll probably be back here in another few years trying to find yet another way to change it, and we’ll be lucky if Sky give us six million dollars for it.