IF EVER there was a time for a club to take their leave from the fourth tier in Scottish football through promotion, either as champions or through the play-off route, then this season might well be it.
Otherwise they face the risk of being ejected out of the other end of the league system and into, well what exactly?
After this league campaign, which kicks off this afternoon for the majority of Scottish clubs, teams in the fourth tier of Scottish football will be looking down as well as up as relegation becomes a live issue for the first time. The trapdoor will soon be open and potentially at least, a new club could join the Scottish Professional Football League in time for the start of the 2015-16 season.
As well as the introduction of play-offs at the top of what is now known as the Championship, which means the second, third and fourth-placed teams will be given the chance to join the champions in the Premiership, a major change has occurred below the SPFL, where the newly-constituted Lowland League, which also kicks off this afternoon, is to be found. This is the first part in the process of establishing a fully operating pyramid system.
Some might expect managers of League Two clubs to be less than enthused by the thought that the normal worries associated with running smaller, community based clubs are set to be compounded by a major additional one. However, for someone like Clyde manager Jim Duffy, the new arrangement appeals to his competitive instincts, as he suspects will the case for his nine other managerial colleagues operating in the same division. But he is looking up in any case. Assuming their prospects are not undermined by injury, he sees no reason why his side, which has been built on a shoe-string budget, cannot earn promotion and leave fears of relegation from senior football behind.
Duffy yesterday claimed to be as excited as he always is on the eve of a new league season, even if he says Clyde, as well as nine other clubs in the division, have been hit by a “triple whammy” after last season, when Rangers provided glamour as well as a financial lifeline. The new wealth redistribution model that is another feature of the new league set-up does not hold too much relevance for teams like Clyde. “You actually lose money at our level because the league is not sponsored yet – that is where you get your money from,” said Duffy, who enjoyed the spike in interest in the Third Division last season.
“Obviously the presence of Rangers drew an enormous amount of publicity – the amount of people who would speak to you about your team was incredible, compared to normal,” he said. “They would relate to you and because you were on TV you were getting more of a spotlight..
“Then there’s the financial benefit,” he added. “So it’s a triple whammy this year of not having the profile, the finance and now the coming threat of a relegation issue, which has not been there, well, forever. It is a real change in circumstances from the old Third Division,” he continued. “You can look at it in two ways; you can have some trepidation or you can think: ‘to be honest there is not that much between the rest of the teams so we will look to compete’. I think everyone will do that. Every single team will believe they can be in the top four.”
For Clyde, points out Duffy, the “main objective” is to keep the club alive financially. “We have reduced debt to point where by the end of this season we should be debt free,” he said. “But it has directly affected the football side. We can’t sign players, and we can’t take risks financially. But I believe that barring bad luck with injuries the group of players we do have can compete.”
With the club seeking to find another £35,000 in their bid to be debt free by the end of the season, Duffy added: “We have 16 signed players, one of those being amateur, “ he said. “The rest will be made up by the Under 19s. We have to live totally within our means. Whatever comes in through the gates we have to pay the bills, the stadium rent, the stewards, the wages and whatever other costs we have. We have to keep the squad very light.”
With East Stirlingshire, who finished in bottom place last season by a margin of 11 points, having bucked the trend by re-strengthening to a significant degree, it is a case of wait and see when it comes to making predictions about who will finish in last place this time around. The race for promotion promises to be the most thrilling aspect, with Albion Rovers joining Peterhead as eve-of-season favourites.
While League Two will suffer in terms of profile due to Rangers’ promotion, League One will enjoy a season in the sun. Not only are the Ibrox side preparing to negotiate the latest stage of their planned rise through the Scottish league in consecutive seasons, but Dunfermline have dropped down from the First Division after a torrid season.
Dundee, meanwhile, kick-off their latest second-tier campaign away at Queen of the South, who will be unfurling their Second Division championship flag at 2.30pm and before the new astroturf surface at Palmerston Park is used for the first time in a league fixture.
Much seems new. Whether it is better remains to be seen.