Popular Partick will not be SPL whipping boys

Partick Thistle's jubilant players celebrate their promotion to the SPL next term after clinching the First Division title. Picture: SNS
Partick Thistle's jubilant players celebrate their promotion to the SPL next term after clinching the First Division title. Picture: SNS
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THERE has been an almost wholly positive reaction to Partick Thistle’s promotion to the SPL, which was confirmed on Saturday by their victory over Falkirk.

One of the best-loved clubs in the country, Thistle can boast a good away support and have been playing some decent football both under current manager Alan Archibald and his predecessor Jackie McNamara.

So they will be of obvious benefit to the top flight, and supporters of other SPL clubs appear to be looking forward to welcoming them next season.

But those supporters should be careful what they wish for. Particularly if what they have in mind is welcoming newcomers who will add a bit of character and colour for a season before meekly returning to the First Division.

For far from being makeweights, Thistle should have a fighting chance of surviving. It is improbable that they will fare as well as Ross County, who could yet finish third in their first season up, but they could easily finish above a number of teams who in recent years have been hovering insecurely just above the relegation zone.

Chris Erskine and Paul Paton will be missed when they leave Firhill in the summer for Dundee United, but we should not presume that it will be all one-way traffic out of the club. Few of Thistle’s new rivals in the SPL have any real money to spend, and this close season more than ever the question will not be who has the most cash to splash around, but who can use their limited funds to best effect.

Yet regardless of whatever intrinsic merits Archibald’s team may have, the simple fact is that they do not have much to fear. They are coming into a top division which is in a particularly impoverished state, not merely in the financial sense but also in terms of creativity and invention. They will certainly not be bowled over by superior artistry.

Look at Dundee this season. Yes, they are surely doomed, but with just four games to go they are still in there fighting.

And they had almost no time to prepare for life in the SPL, having been promoted only after Rangers’ exclusion. Thistle have built steadily, and for some time now have had the trappings of an SPL club in waiting.

Speaking of Rangers, there must be a few club chairmen extremely thankful for the problems at Ibrox. At any other time in their history, Rangers would have been in the top division, and if not actively competing for the title, at the very least steering well clear of trouble.

Had Ally McCoist’s team been in the SPL this season rather than Dundee, what would we have at present? St Mirren, Hearts, Hibernian, Aberdeen and Kilmarnock all still threatened by the drop, with only a handful of points separating the five clubs.

Looking at the table just now, it seems pretty clear that Thistle have a very good chance of at least not becoming detached. One or two of the five clubs mentioned above should make a significant improvement next season, with Aberdeen under Derek McInnes being the best bet; but they won’t all be transformed into European contenders.

Last season Hibs only ensured their survival in their second last league match, defeating Dunfermline to send the Fife club down. The season before that, St Mirren had to fight almost all the way before seeing off Hamilton, with Hibs finishing just four points ahead of the Paisley side.

Certainly, as the former Hearts striker John Robertson suggested last week, if play-offs were in place between the SPL and the First Division, we would be about to witness one of the most exciting ends to a season ever. All five clubs who are above Dundee in the bottom six might fancy their chances of getting the better of Morton, if there was a play-off between second bottom and second top. But they would still be desperate to avoid the pressure that such a fixture would inflict.

Yet if they want meaningful games, as ten of the 12 SPL clubs assured us they did when they voted last week for two top divisions of 12 which would be chopped into three eights, why not introduce a play-off? You don’t need to restructure the whole of Scottish football to put it into effect, just agree for an extra tie to be played at the end of the regular season.

Of course, when club chairmen tell us they want more excitement, what they mean is excitement within safe limits – excitement that does not go so far as to threaten their own status. Just as, when supporters of SPL clubs welcome Partick Thistle into the top flight, they hope that the Glasgow club do not feel so welcome that they actually decide to hang around there for more than a season.