Andrew Smith: League reconstruction is about fairness, not only money

So much to gain from moving from four leagues to three

Hampden Park, the SPFL headquarters
Hampden Park, the SPFL headquarters

It may appear as if momentum is building behind moves to reconfigure the 42 senior clubs into three leagues of 14. Such optimism could be off the mark.

That 60 per cent of the 700 PFA Scotland members who took part in a poll on reconstruction options have backed the 14-14-14 demonstrates a genuine appetite for redrawing the leagues by those playing.

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Yet, it has emerged that, in private, a number of those in charge at Premiership clubs see little prospect of any reconstruction in time for next season – whenever the Covid-19 crisis allows for that to begin.

Initially, the three 14s appeared to have an outside chance of being passed as it became apparent the rival proposal of 14-10-10-10 was a non-starter. The latter would require two clubs to come into the senior set-up, and therefore a change to the financial distribution model. To pass, votes on such matters require approval by 11 of the 12 Premiership clubs , as well as 75 per cent of Championship clubs, and 75 per cent of League 1 and League 2 clubs. You would struggle to gain agreement from 11 Premiership sides on changing the wallpaper in the SPFL’s Hampden offices.

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In contrast, sticking to the distribution model and rejigging the current senior 42 clubs into 14-14-14 would only need the backing of nine Premiership clubs, in addition to 75 per cent of the other two groupings. Still, though, it appears that there could be at least four refuseniks in the top flight, which would torpedo such change. The 14-10-10-10 proposal is already a dead duck following the decision of all ten League Two clubs to back three 14s as one block – this move preventing any other proposal being able to achieve the 75 per cent backing of the bottom two tiers.

Amid claims that reconstruction is only being pursued to save Hearts’ skin, it has been lost that the catalyst for remoulding the 12-10-10-10 Scottish Professional Football League was to ensure that no clubs – whether the Tynecastle club, Partick Thistle and Stranraer – suffered demotions because of the inability to complete up to 25 per cent of league games because of the coronavirus lockdown.

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Lost in simply taking this narrow focus, is how much more that could be gained from moving from four leagues to three, and operating with a 14-club top flight. A six/eight split for two rounds of matches, following the 14 teams playing each other home and away, would rid Scotland of the inequitable split that currently exists. The break after three rounds in the 12-team Premiership necessitates some clubs playing an unequal number of home and away games against opponents.

Moreover, the format envisaged in the recast top flight would see two clubs automatically relegated and a third go forward to a play-off with the third-placed team in the second league. This, too, would right a wrong. The fact that only one club is guaranteed to go down from the current 12-club Premiership makes it the most closed-shop of major leagues across the whole of Europe.

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To their credit, Livingston and Kilmarnock have been able to see the bigger picture and – providing the change is permanent and not a one-year sticking plaster – support a Premiership expansion to 14 teams. It is admirable they have not fixated on the fact the enlargement could cost them a lucrative home fixture against one of the Glasgow clubs. However, while it is likely that Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen, Hamilton Accies, Hibernian and – obviously –Hearts would be able to see the value of a top-six split that would reduce the number of league games for the top clubs by two to 36, there appear problems beyond this. Without becoming too technical, an issue is sticking by the current financial distribution model. In that scenario, the teams finishing 13th and 14th would bank the prize money currently on offer to first and second in the Championship. This is a drop of half a million pounds from the team finishing bottom in the Premiership as it stands.

It seems that Ross County, St Mirren, St Johnstone and, potentially, Motherwell may consider this too much of a risk. Any club that budgets for finishing second bottom in the top flight would require to take a hefty chunk out of spending plans if, all of a sudden, they are having to budget for finishing 13th in a redrawn Premiership. Yet this should not be the be all and end all. We are forever hearing that in these unprecedented times, we have to prepare ourselves for doing things differently when we come out the other side. However, in Scottish football, it would seem notions of fairness and greater competitiveness cannot trump self-interest, whatever the circumstances.

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