Andrew Smith: Confused? You shouldn’t be. It’s really very simple
In the top flight of Argentine football, theoretically a team can finish in the top half and yet be demoted owing to the fact that two relegation places are determined through averaging out the points gained across three seasons. In the Greek Superleague, the teams from second through to fifth compete in a play-off mini-league for the country’s second Champions League berth. They do so using a weighting system whereby the fifth-placed side starts on zero, but their season’s tally is the base figure for calculating the points with which other teams begin the mini-league. The difference in the points totals between fifth and fourth, third and second are divided by five and then rounded up or down to reach the nearest whole number. Excuse me if, against such a backdrop, it appears the professional naysayers are being somewhat hasty in bemoaning the over-complicated nature of the proposed reconstruction of Scottish football whereby two top leagues of 12 that would give way to three eight-team sections.
Frankly, the outraged bamboozlement provoked by plans for the 12-12-18 reconfiguration of the senior game makes you wonder if many in the Scottish football fraternity are no better than reactionary pinheads. The question begged is what precisely is so difficult to comprehend in the proposals put forward by the three governing bodies? Teams in the first tier and second tier play each other home and away. The bottom four from the first tier join with the top four from the second tier to create a play-off mini-league. Three eight-team sections are thereby created. Teams in the first section then play each other home and away to decide champions and European places. Teams in the middle section do likewise to decide promotion and relegation. And teams in the bottom section seek to avoid relegation to the 18-team third tier.
No-one has pretended the solution is a perfect one. It is simply the case that, for the country of five million we live in and with the number of full-time teams requiring to be accommodated and share the meagre footballing wealth, it appears the least imperfect solution right now. For a kick off, any new league structure will be better than the current set-up because top flight clubs are in agreement on both a more equitable cash distribution model and the need for a merger of the Scottish Premier League and Scottish Football League.
The plans, which will need approval from 22 of the 29 full members of the SFL and 11 of the 12 SPL clubs at the end of January, have been trashed a 16-club top flight, wherein teams play each other only twice a season, has been ludicrously feted. Punters are supposed to have been ignored because, once more, there has been no appetite for a 16-team set-up among top-flight clubs. The issue of 16, indeed, reminds one of the pollsters who canvas the public on whether they want better public services. Always, 90-odd per cent respond in the affirmative. Ask them, however, if they are willing to bear higher taxes in return and the ‘yes’ responses dwindle to practically nothing.
Supporters may think they want 16 but they don’t want the revenue of their clubs to drop by a third and have to endure – in some cases – practically half a season of meaningless matches. What has rendered the SPL stale is not the number of times sides play one another. It is lack of competition at the top and the drop-out rate at the bottom. Short of banning Celtic, the former won’t change any time soon. However, under the new proposals, Scotland would switch from having the lowest drop-out rate of any top league in Europe – one in 12 – to potentially the highest, with the possibility that four top-flight teams – a third of the league – could be pushed into the second 12. That would surely provide a corking level of intrigue.
Whatever the many critics may say, the 12-12-18 is radical. It radically manufactures competition all the way through.
There have been moans that teams lose their points when going forward to the play-off eight but rarely do points carry into play-offs. In England the team placed third in the Championship can lose out on promotion to a team finishing 15 points behind them. For the bottom four of the first tier and top four of the second tier in Scotland, the new system wouldn’t mean their first 22 games of any season being rendered meaningless. These games will have decided whether they have failed to avoid/earned a play-off.
Of course scheduling, stadium criteria, branding and awarding prizes for the second and third eights, as well as the nature of relegation play-offs at the foot of the third eight, are all issues to be resolved. Meanwhile, the Rangers situation has been highlighted as an anomaly. Yet, it is not as simplistic as has been portrayed. Whenever a league set-up switches from four tiers to three tiers, the lowest tier effectively disappears. As a result, the outcomes in that tier are rendered somewhat meaningless. Rangers people fizz that, with the drive to have the new set-up in place for next season, the goalposts are being moved mid-season. Yet, regardless of when you sought to affect this change, it would deny the winners of the Third Division their reward, since, essentially, the Second and Third Divisions are being merged. Ultimately, though, Rangers’ aim this season was to be playing the teams currently in the Second Division come the next campaign and be only two promotions away from the top flight. Those aspirations would not be compromised should the 12-12-18 become reality. But, even if those of a Rangers disposition are not willing to embrace such bold change, the rest of us should at least delay condemning it until it has had a fair trial.