SCOTTISH FA chief executive Stewart Regan is optimistic that proposals for a single league body will be approved today, avoiding another summer of discontent, which he says is the last thing the game needs.
Scottish Football League clubs will gather for an extraordinary general meeting at Hampden to vote on whether to dissolve their 123-year-old organisation and join the Scottish Premier League clubs in forming a new 42-team Scottish Professional Football League from the start of next season.
The SPL clubs have already backed the plan with a 12-0 unanimity but, at last month’s SFL agm, an indicative secret ballot of the 29 clubs eligible to vote revealed just 16 in favour with 13 against.
Today’s proposal needs the support of at least 22 clubs to go through. If it fails, the ten clubs who would form the First Division next season have made it clear they will resign from the SFL and seek immediate membership of the SPL. That could spark a bitter legal battle over whether or not the rebel clubs are required to give a two-year notice period to leave the SFL.
But Regan, whose proposal for a new Lowland League was unanimously approved at the SFA’s agm yesterday, believes the new SPFL will get the go-ahead from clubs he describes as now “seeing sense” as decision time looms.
“I’m more optimistic it will happen than I have been at any other time in the last six months,” said Regan. “That’s because I think there has been a lot of work done between the leagues. There has been a lot of dialogue and a lot of concessions on both parts.
“We are now at the 11th hour. The clock is ticking towards the start of the new season and decisions have to be made. To wait any longer means there won’t be change collectively for all 42 clubs.
“If the decision on Wednesday doesn’t go in favour of the resolution, then the First Division clubs could choose to go and knock on the door of the SPL and ask to be part of that.
“What I would prefer and what the Scottish FA board would prefer is a 42 club solution for Scottish football. It’s not about divisiveness, it’s not about breakaways. We have had too much of that in years gone by. This is about doing what is right for the game. The closer we get to that decision, the more I am starting to pick up the vibe that clubs are seeing the sense in that.
“I think we are all tired of it. There have been a lot of challenging issues over the last 12 months. The last thing we need is another summer of falling out, acrimony and debate on non-footballing matters.”
With fixtures for the 2013-14 season to be published next Wednesday, time is short in terms of forming and regulating the proposed SPFL. Several clubs have expressed concern over the lack of time to undertake due diligence.
But Regan insists there is no reason why it should not happen now. “It is doable,” he said. “If you look at what we achieved in the summer of 2011, we completely changed the articles and delivered a new Scottish FA, board structure and Judicial system inside eight weeks of it being approved. We can do the same again. My team are up for it but we need someone to vote the whole thing through on Wednesday. Breakaways might work legally and they might work operationally but does it create the right landscape and working environment to take the game forward?
“Scotland seems to thrive on acrimony and bitterness within football. We’ve got to get away from that. We have to say that one league, one board, one strategy and one opportunity for growth has to be better for all of us.”
The new Lowland League will start next season in any event, becoming part of a pyramid system the following campaign if the SFL clubs agree that whoever finishes bottom of the Third Division should enter into a relegation-promotion play-off against the winners of a play-off between the Highland and Lowland League champions.
“Third Division clubs need to know there is a safe and professional environment they can fall into,” said Regan. “We have said we will put that in place.
“As you can imagine, it is a big ask for Third Division clubs to vote this through. What they are essentially doing is opening a trapdoor they could fall through. Getting back, as we know from what has happened in England, isn’t always as easy as it might seem. Clubs need to know they are not just going to go into oblivion.
“To establish the Lowland League unanimously today was a signal that the members agree with the principle. They agree with the need to have standards in place and clubs in the Lowland League will need to be licensed.
“We have agreement from both Highland and Lowland League that we would have a degree of flexibility as regards where the losers of the play-off final would go, similar to what happens in England with the Blue Square North and South Conferences.
“They have a floating boundary and an agreement to shuffle the pack if they need to in order to get the balance right. If a team which comes down is in a completely different geographical location to the team coming up, you will either have a league running slightly imbalanced or they will invite another club in.
“The Highland League runs with 18 teams at the moment. The Lowland League will run initially with 10 teams, rising to 16 over time which they see as their optimum number. The Lowland League will go ahead irrespective of whether the bottom of the Third Division is opened up by the SFL on Wednesday.
“The clubs who have expressed an interest, and there are 26 of them, have all indicated they want to be part of a new structure which establishes a more professional league below the Third Division. Clubs want to better themselves, clubs like Dalbeattie Star, Spartans and Threave Rovers. They are all ambitious with businessman round the table and backers waiting to come on board.
“I’ve used the example before of Auxerre in France and that’s the blueprint these clubs are looking at. How do we go from playing on a park to getting into the Champions League at some point in the future? If football is a meritocracy, it has to work right the way through the game.”
Bill Darroch: Vote ‘tough to call’
THE vote on plans for a merger of the Scottish Premier League and Scottish Football League at Hampden Park today is “hard to call,” according to Stenhousemuir chairman Bill Darroch.
Just 16 of the 30 SFL clubs gave reconstruction proposals their backing in an informal ballot at the annual general meeting at the national stadium last month - Rangers do not get a vote as they are associate members having joined last summer.
The Second and Third Division clubs met subsequently to discuss a threatened breakaway by the 10 First Division clubs, a threat which remains in the background.
When all the SFL clubs reconvene in the south side of Glasgow for a formal vote, Darroch is hoping that a solution involving all 42 senior clubs will be agreed upon. However, he is not certain that 22 clubs - the number needed to see the plans go ahead - will vote in favour.
“I think it will be tight, I think it is hard to call,” said Darroch. “Some clubs will still be making their minds up as they travel to Hampden. The clubs got some documentation only yesterday and I have still to have a look at it.
“We are not totally 100 per cent happy but the general feeling is that it is better we have all 42 clubs together than have a split.
“There was a meeting between the Second and Third Division clubs after the AGM and I detected a softening among some clubs but I can appreciate there are a number of different and legitimate concerns among them. The governance needs to be right, and the voting structure is not as equitable as it could be but we have been debating this for a long time so hopefully we get it over the line.”
Third Division Stirling Albion are set to vote in favour of the plans but director Stuart Brown is also cautious about the outcome. He said: “It is on a knife edge. As a board we have agreed to vote yes on the basis of information that we have been given but more information is becoming public all the time which means it might not be as straightforward as some people might think. There is a lot of talking to be done.”