Scottish 'championship' could work out to benefit everyone

IT WAS something of a coincidence that Motherwell, Livingston and Dundee should find themselves in the news last week. These three clubs are linked through having gone through the painful process of administration in recent years while in the SPL. There the similarities end, though.

The Fir Park side are the only one of the trio to have come through financial meltdown and remain a highly competitive member of the top flight. That, I would maintain, is anything but unrelated to the continuity within their coaching staff. It is ideal for the club that Maurice Malpas has stepped up from the role of assistant manager to fill the vacancy created by Terry Butcher's move to Sydney. Maurice knows the set-up inside out and has been Terry's right-hand man since Motherwell sank to the bottom of the league in 2002-3.

But for Falkirk being refused entry on the stadium criteria, Motherwell would have slipped into the First Division three summers ago, but Terry and Maurice certainly made the most of the escape.

The directors stuck by the pair at this difficult time. That contrasts sharply with the post-adminstration landscapes at Almondvale and Dens Park. In John Robertson, Livingston owner Pearse Flynn is now on to his fifth manager in two years. A huge turnaround in personnel and playing philosophy tends to follow any change at the top of the football department. That must be factored in to why both Livingston could not beat the drop and Flynn is now desperately trying to push for a breakaway league along the lines of the English Championship.

As Dundee have discovered, relegation from the Premierleague is disastrous for revenue. The gulf between the two set-ups in monetary terms is monumental. It is arguable whether a second-tier distinct from the Scottish Football League but running as a counterpart to the SPL would successfully bridge that gap. But part-time clubs in the Third Division don't bring in an awful lot less from their membership of a - currently - sponsorless SFL than teams recently jettisoned from the top flight. And that has the potential to send many of our middle-ranking clubs down the part-time route or even out of business.

Like Motherwell, it might be said that only good fortune prevented Livingston requiring to face up to a financial black hole before now. If not shown leniency over the Hassan Kachloul escapade, they would have been doing so a year ago. Instead, it was my old club who then had to face up to the swingeing cutbacks demotion made imperative. I know first-hand that Dundee's cumulative debts were far greater than those that John Boyle and Flynn had to address at their clubs. Without the fund-raising efforts of the Dens Park supporters, indeed, the club would have gone to the wall. The debt then hovered at around three times the 6.5m that the Marr brothers this week transferred into their own businesses to give the club a clean slate.

They deserve to be commended for taking such a sore hit at the bank and yet only now selling their shares with the club's full-time status secure for the moment under new chief executive Dave McKinnon. Boyle and Flynn also warrant respect for not walking away or simply asset-stripping as a means of recouping on their heavy losses as administration bit at their clubs.

It is understandable Flynn will now look to any means to avoid Livingston making further drains on his personal fortune that could prove fatal for the club's future. But the unseemly haste with which he appears to want to drag willing, and not so willing, First Division cohorts into a restructured second tier can only engender cynicism and scepticism over underlying motives.

If Flynn and the other members of the "Scottish Championship" steering group came forward with a plan to be implemented following a consultation process with the SPL, SFL and SFA that stretched across the next 18 months or so, then their recent manoeuvres could be applauded as genuine efforts to modify a set-up it is universally agreed cannot continue in its present form.

But for them to want to rip up the statutes requiring them to give a two-year notice period so that they can have a Championship, or SPL2, up and running in a matter of weeks smacks of the most naked self-interest. When it didn't affect the Livingston owner, he seemed to have no concern about what was happening below Premierleague level. Now, all of a sudden, he seems to be issuing threats to the SFL and deriding the product.

Even if it is for the wrong reasons, however, Flynn may be on the right lines. Just as the playing of the game is no longer merely about those in the starting line-up, so the health and development of senior Scottish football shouldn't be solely about the teams who make up the top flight. Clubs like St Johnstone, Dundee and now Livingston are recent first-teamers reduced to squad members. Aside from Celtic, Rangers, Hearts and Inverness Caledonian Thistle, during the past decade alone all the current top-flight teams have either been, or flirted with becoming, First Division drop-outs.

The SPL very much needs back-up players, then. Across the next year or more, there should be dialogue between the SPL and SFL to facilitate changes that ensure these clubs remain in the necessary condition to enhance Scotland's first XII.