John Hughes urges SPFL to consider 14-team solution

Former Hibs manager calls for patience in bid to resolve league

Falkirk's John Hughes celebrates promotion in 2003 but the club were denied a place in the top flight. Picture: Andrew Stuart/TSPL

John Hughes has appealed to the game’s governing bodies for patience, saying it would be reckless to rush forward with a fast but flawed judgment on how to settle a season that has been stuck in limbo since last month’s shutdown.

The Scottish Professional Football League board members will meet via video link today to discuss ways to complete a campaign disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Sign up to our Football newsletter

Sign up to our Football newsletter

Hughes believes it would be foolhardy to make snap decisions and warned that any solution must not leave lingering resentment.

The former Hibs manager would like to see all remaining matches completed but if that is not possible he has urged the powerbrokers to suspend relegation but keep promotion, meaning an extended top flight of 14 or 16 teams.

Such a scenario would spare Hearts the drop and allow runaway Championship leaders Dundee United to join the Premiership.

“I hope people are patient,” Hughes said. “But if there has to be a rushed decision, just extend the leagues, make sure there is no relegation but make sure that teams like Dundee United still get promotion. It’s not perfect but it is the easiest thing to do and the fairest.”

With the coronavirus crisis showing little sign of abating, the likelihood is that the hiatus will be extended. That has prompted some to call for a manufactured conclusion to the campaign but the former Hibernian and Celtic defender is firmly of the opinion that it would be cruel to void the season and deny the likes of Celtic and United the title wins they appear on course to claim.

But he is also wary of simply handing them the trophies by calling time on the season and, consequently, consigning clubs such as Hearts and Partick Thistle to a relegation fate they may have escaped had they been able to fulfil all their fixtures.

Aware that the authorities are facing a situation where “they can’t do right for doing wrong”, he believes the best solution is to show some patience and find a way of scheduling the remaining league fixtures and maintaining footballing integrity.

Hughes was on the receiving end of rough justice twice when his Falkirk side were denied promotion and he believes they were victims of being a so-called small club.

“There is so much politics involved but let me tell you, it is soul-destroying to work hard all season, do all the right things, win the league and still not get promoted,” Hughes said. “I know because I was at Falkirk when they did that to us. It was me and Owen Coyle who were joint managers and it really hurt but Owen left that summer for Dundee United and I was the one left picking up the pieces, telling players who had just been kicked in the teeth that we didn’t have the budget to keep them. It takes a while to get over that and most of us who were involved are probably still resentful.

“It was the second time they had found a reason to stop us going up and it was gut-wrenching; all because the stadium didn’t meet SPL criteria, which was later relaxed anyway! But, if you look at who stayed up in our place, I think they just thought: ‘oh, It’s just wee Falkirk!’”

His cynicism stems from the fact that it was Aberdeen, in 1999-2000, and then Motherwell, in 2002-03, settled top tier teams, who were the beneficiaries, although Aberdeen also had to rely on league reconstruction to prevent a further relegation play-off.

With possible relegations and promotions proving so contentious, he has warned the decision-makers that a similar reshuffle may be the only way to minimise the backlash of a premature end to this season. But while he says a 14-team top flight makes sense, he fears that those with a vote will be swayed by self-preservation, and decide they do not want to dilute their share of the money that pours into the highest echelons of the club game.

“It is all about the cut of the cake and getting as much as they can when the television money and things like that are shared out,” added Hughes.

“But I have always said we should expand the leagues to 14 or 16. If it is 14 then we can still have four Old Firm games and, we can’t get away from the fact that Old Firm games are what the TV companies want, so decisions are made to suit the Old Firm, not the clubs in the lower leagues but this is about all of Scottish football and we have to look after all our clubs – especially after this. It doesn’t matter if you are in the Lowland League, League One or the Premier League, everyone has worked hard, made sacrifices and I just hope that when they make their decision, it is the right decision for all of Scottish football.”

Stating that Celtic, Rangers, Hibs, Hearts and Aberdeen would always be “the flag carriers” of the Scottish game, he said it was important to remember that the SPFL is a football fraternity and warned that there was a duty to care for all clubs, many of whom will struggle to survive the current hardship.

“This decision should be about all the clubs. That’s why we should be patient and wait and get the season finished. That’s what all the players will want. I have spoken to players and fans and no-one really wants an asterisk beside a title win and if Hearts or Thistle go down, they will want to know they have no-one else to blame but themselves. Win the title or go down, no-one wants there to be any excuses.”