Andrew Smith: Henry McLeish can heal SPL/SFL rift

Henry McLeish says the way the SPL was formed has left 'massive legacies' but he is calling on all clubs to work together. Picture: SNS
Henry McLeish says the way the SPL was formed has left 'massive legacies' but he is calling on all clubs to work together. Picture: SNS
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THE Scottish Premier League and the Scottish Football League have been driven further apart than ever over competing reconstruction models that would effectively, and not accidentally, destroy the other’s powerbase.

The need, then, for an honest broker in the game has never been more pronounced. Henry McLeish, whose review of Scottish football called for “integration” of the two league bodies, is willing to take on such a role – one that Ban Ki-moon would probably think twice about accepting.

The United Nations is indeed one of McLeish’s touchstones in seeking to solve the impasse over the redrawing of our football landscape. The 12 SPL clubs last week announced plans for two top leagues of 12 splitting into three play-off sections comprising eight clubs. It was forwarded as a riposte, a “blanket rejection” as one SPL source put it, of the 16-10-16 league format proposed by the SFL.

Relations between the two league bodies are said to be at an all-time low following the close season attempts by the SPL to parachute a newco Rangers into the First Division. McLeish’s original review backed two leagues of ten as the only commercially viable option but, in the summer, he stated he was open to the idea of a top flight of 16 as the Rangers issue became problematic. Now, McLeish says the country should stop becoming “bogged down” with structures and see the bigger picture to seize what might be one of the last “windows of opportunity” as Scottish football finds itself in a “critical condition”.

“The SPL, SFL and SFA, who have an important role here, know I am willing to help in any way I possibly can,” he says. “They know my commitment to Scottish football is total and that I share the heartache of the fans over what is happening. There needs to be goodwill on all sides, a willingness to give concessions to prevent vested interests overwhelming the makeover that everyone can see is required for a regeneration of the game. In any debating forum, whether that be the UN, the IMF or the EU, you start off with desired outcomes and work your way back to set out structures and processes and that is what must be done here.”

The problem is that no goodwill exists between the two league bodies. Essentially, the SPL wants to look after the top 24 clubs, leaving the community-based, part-time sides to fend for themselves. The SFL wants to push for a solution that has revenue filtering through to all member clubs. It was ever thus. In 1998 the SPL was formed as a breakaway to allow the top clubs to retain a greater share of the revenue they created. The bad feeling from that desertion, as the SFL saw it, has never gone away.

“Am I surprised that there are such enmities between the leagues? No, I am not,” McLeish says. “When I did my in-depth investigation I became well aware of the massive legacies that remain at work from the way the SPL was formed. There is a lot of dark matter in Scottish football, black holes into which sanity disappears. But we should move past the talk of personality issues and historic ill-feeling and ask others to do so. I appeal to all concerned to stop the blame game. We have a good mix of professional clubs, semi-professional clubs and community clubs. We need to find a system that best accommodates all of these. Equally, we can’t have open-ended discussions because the timing is critical. I managed to persuade the government to continue their backing of the League Cup for one more season but Clydesdale Bank’s sponsorship of the SPL is up this season. Broadcasting revenues are not as good as they could be, while investment and supporters are not being attracted to the game in the numbers that would allay concerns. Yet the outlook should not be seen as overly gloomy. Two years ago the game was engulfed by the sectarian issue and, last year, there was what happened to Rangers, yet the top flight has weathered these storms.”

In his review, McLeish made 103 recommendations. It was predicted some might become reality, such as a merger between SFL and SPL – “that would obviate the need for the current dilemma,” he says – reconstruction, more play-offs and a pyramid system, but that his plans to modernise and streamline the SFA were too bold. Three and a half years on, the SFA is exactly the organisation he envisaged it must become while the set-ups in the senior game are entirely unchanged. “We are dealing with 139 years of football history here, so that must be factored in,” McLeish says. Yet it is only the 14 years of the SPL that have left the game in such a bind.