SPL restructure: Play-offs to revive end-of-season

Hibs preserved their top-flight status after beating Airdrie in a two-legged play-off in 1997. Picture: TSPL

Hibs preserved their top-flight status after beating Airdrie in a two-legged play-off in 1997. Picture: TSPL

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MANY of us will find it hard to understand why the 12 SPL clubs failed to reach agreement on play-offs when they met yesterday at Hampden.

The arguments in favour of them are so compelling that it scarcely seems necessary to meet for several hours, only to agree to reconvene the discussion at a later date.

But the main thing is that at least play-offs were not rejected once and for all. They will be debated again, and there is still ample time to agree that the change should be introduced for next season.

Because, after the tortuous talks a fortnight ago, in which a number of proposed reforms were wrapped together into one unappealing package, this is a simple, single-issue proposal. And, what makes it particularly attractive, it is a simple proposal which can shake up the SPL and the First Division merely by adding one extra tie.

We’re not talking 12-12-18 here. We’re not debating the merits of splitting the two top divisions into three eights. And we’re not mulling over complicated models of revenue redistribution.

The SPL representatives tried to make it more complicated by discussing four different kinds of play-offs, but it’s pretty simple really. All we are saying is let the club which finishes second in the First Division play against the club that is second bottom of the SPL, and let the winner go into next season’s SPL. There may be some who advocate having a single match, but a home-and-away tie worked before and seems likely to be adopted again.

There are two distinct advantages of adopting such a play-off: one for the First Division and one for the SPL. Together, they constitute a compelling case for adopting a proposal which would, at a stroke, refresh the domestic game, particularly at this end of the season when enthusiasm tends to flag.

The First Division has long been a bottleneck which ambitious clubs have been trapped in. Every season, four or five teams begin with plausible hopes of winning promotion, only for all but one to have those hopes dashed.

Partick Thistle are worthy champions this season and will be a refreshing change in the SPL, but you could say the same of other clubs as well. Falkirk, Livingston, Dunfermline and Hamilton have all been creditable members of the top flight in recent years, while Morton came closer than any of them to challenging Thistle. Any of those five could be expected to give a good account of themselves in a play-off.

In the SPL, the fight to avoid the current single relegation place is still going on, if only until Saturday, when St Mirren will finally guarantee their survival if they win at Tynecastle. (If the Paisley side lose, Dundee will keep the issue going for another week provided they beat Aberdeen at home the following day). Dundee have kept the issue alive for longer than was expected, but that has still not been enough to inject much enthusiasm into the post-split bottom six.

But think how much more exciting, or nerve-racking, the bottom six would be just now if that play-off place were there. Dundee would be fighting to get into it, while not only St Mirren but also Hearts, Hibernian, Kilmarnock and even Aberdeen would still be struggling to escape it. And if that were the case, there would be a whole lot more tension, and perhaps even ferocity, in the remaining games.

If Hearts, for example, remained under threat of ending up in a play-off place, they might just have played as a team with more wholehearted enthusiasm than they showed in their 1-0 defeat at Dens three days ago. Similarly, Hibs would have at least tried to play a bit more coherently than they managed against St Mirren, and the Aberdeen-Kilmarnock game could also have been more keenly contested.

The same would be the case this weekend and perhaps the following two as well. And it would have applied equally to matches in preceding months.

To take the example of Hibs again, they would surely not have slid down the league with such a numbing lack of concern if there were a penalty for finishing second bottom. I’m not saying they would necessarily have stayed in the top six, but they would at least have fought more tenaciously to stay there.

And that’s the key thing about play-offs. They introduce more competition: not just in the case of the deciding tie itself, but for much of the preceding season. Let’s be having them, as Delia would say.

Playoff proposals

THE SPL clubs appear to be generally in favour of introducing play-offs between the First Division and top-flight. But how would they work? The following four proposals are under consideration…

• The traditional SFL model, where the team that finishes 11th in the SPL would play the team that finishes fourth in the First Division, and the teams that finish second and third in the First Division play each other. The winners would then meet in the final.

• A “Champions League group-style” model, where the teams that finish tenth and 11th in the SPL and the teams that finish second and third in the First Division play each other home and away. There would be 12 games (six games each), with the group winners qualifying for the SPL.

• The teams that finish second, third, fourth and fifth in the First Division play off, and the winner plays the team that finishes 11th in the SPL for a place in the top flight.

• The teams that finish tenth and 11th in the SPL play against each other, and so do the teams who finish second and third in the First Division. The winners then meet in a final.

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