Summer football returns with League Cup group phase

Neil Doncaster was at Hampden to announce the energy company Utilita as official presenting partner of the Scottish League Cup. Picture: SNS
Neil Doncaster was at Hampden to announce the energy company Utilita as official presenting partner of the Scottish League Cup. Picture: SNS
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SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster has confirmed that next season will start in July with a group phase of the League Cup due a clamour from clubs for summer football.

Doncaster was not able to offer an explanation of how the revived sections will work as the plan is still being worked upon.

However, it will involve 38 of the 42 league clubs – the four European participants will be exempt until the last 16.

So the difficulty for the powerbrokers at Hampden is how to formulate a sectional system which will produce 12 qualifiers.

Doncaster, who yesterday announced energy firm Utilita as sponsors for the remainder of this season’s competition in a deal worth £200,000, says the blueprint will be delivered by the end of the year.

He said: “There have been discussions with clubs for a number of months over a group stage format and revamp of the League Cup.

“A number have made it clear they would like to see summer football and so have fans.

“It’s our intention to revisit the format in time for next summer so that we can have a July group stage that will deliver that demand. The precise format has to be worked through but ultimately it’s up to the clubs.”

The League Cup used a sectional system up until the 1983-84 season when it was scrapped due to fixture congestion but Doncaster says there is a huge appetite for its return. He said: “Having a group stage in July has been warmly received by most, if not all, people. A number of clubs are keen to have games in the warmer months and it means all the clubs will start at the same time.

“The details – format, group sizes and regionalisation, has to be worked through. But I am hopeful that we will be able to announce the format by the end of the year.”

The dates for the knock-out phase will remain the same, with the final in early March. A new television deal is also being sought as the current arrangement with the BBC ends this season.

All of the BBC’s contracts with the SPFL are up for renewal – including TV highlights, radio rights and digital rights – and Doncaster has joined SPFL chairman Ralph Topping in demanding that the public broadcaster pays a more attractive rate than the £1 million deal currently operating. Doncaster also hinted that other companies are in the market for coverage of the League Cup. The BBC currently screens four matches live, including the final.

He said: “It would be unfair to talk about broadcasters but I’d hope we’ll be in a position soon to talk about what we are doing with the rights for the League Cup. We are in the final year of our deal with the BBC in terms of our package. Those discussions continue. There certainly needs to be more investment in the national game from the Scottish national broadcaster.

“It’s something that you won’t find much disagreement about within the game.”

There are suggestions that the Scottish government may become involved to exert pressure on the BBC to offer what the SPFL would consider a more commensurate financial package. Doncaster added: “Let’s wait and see what happens but there are a number of people interested in this debate who would like to see more investment from BBC Scotland in the game here.

“Ultimately, money is a key contributor to the success of the game in Scotland.

“We absolutely value BBC Scotland as one of our key partners but it’s important that they pay a fair price for the rights.”