Leeann Dempster: Well on the way to a 12-12 future

ROSS County manager Derek Adams branded the plans “ridiculous”, but those advocating the adoption of the 12-12-18 proposals for league reconstruction have said that lessons could be learned from down south.

“Don’t forget, nobody in England particularly liked the idea of play-offs when they came in but they are now almost the crown jewels of the English season, attracting a lot of interest and generating a lot of excitement towards the end of the season,” says Motherwell chief executive, Leeann Dempster, who has been candid in her assertion that the SPL has been lax in the way it has tried to engage with supporters and the media and in the way it has allowed the plans to be leaked and consumed by negativity before the whole message could be put across.

Like many other clubs, Motherwell are engaging in ongoing consultation with the their fans ahead of any formal vote next month but Dempster believes that the first meeting, with around 65-70 Well Society representatives last Saturday, was telling.

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“When they came to the meeting most of them initially indicated that they were either against or undecided but, after a couple of hours of quite vigorous debate, on a show of hands as people were leaving, only three of the group were still of the opinion that they didn’t want the club to vote in favour of this,” says Dempster.

She has further meetings planned, with supporters groups and season ticket holders, and is hopeful of gaining their backing as she firmly believes that the plans tabled offer more positives than negatives and maintains that the status quo is not a viable option.

“We need an open, adult conversation about this and, so far, I don’t think that has happened. I think we have lost the PR battle and I have said that to people at the SPL. People need to know what it means in real language, and need to hear all the pros as well as the cons. I think if fans understand that we need to do something in the short-term that will hopefully get us closer to where they want to be in the long term, then I think it would be more palatable.”

Due to social media websites which are populated by a vocal minority who are able to set the tone, she says myths quickly become “fact” as opinions become polarised and the truth is swallowed up or distorted as a consequence.

“Yes, this model was tried in Switzerland and it didn’t work but that was because the top teams kept all the money so it wasn’t very competitive and the same teams stayed in the top league. For this to work we need to change the distribution of wealth so that clubs currently in the First Division can close the gap and compete and we can get movement in the leagues.”

Dempster admits that the part of the plan which will be hardest to bear is the split after 22 games which would see two top leagues of 12 become three leagues of eight, with the middle eight playing for promotion and relegation. It is this aspect which has so enraged Adams, particularly the requirement for clubs in the middle eight to give up points won in the first part of the season.

“For a club like Motherwell it means that our European destiny could be decided after just 22 games and that would be tough,” says Dempster, “but I honestly think compromise is worth it to get the other things we like. For me, the move to one governing body and the more equitable distribution of voting powers and wealth are more important for the long-term future of the game in Scotland.”

In the short-term, it may mean fans having to accept a structure they find less palatable than the 16 or 18-team league they have been calling for. But, in finding a way to strengthen the First Division clubs currently scraping by on a tiny percentage of the money SPL clubs are awarded each year, she says the likelihood of a bigger league increases in the long-term.

“No disrespect to the clubs in the First Division at the moment but I don’t think they could compete on a week-to-week basis. One-off cup games, yes, but not every week.So, if we extended the league just now, then we would have so many meaningless games and that is what we are trying to get away from. I think there are several great clubs down there who could become big clubs again but we need the better redistribution of money in the game for that to happen.”

Even Adams, who guided Ross County up from the First Division last season and is currently eyeing a top-six finish in the SPL, has stated that there is a huge gulf between the clubs in the top two tiers.

And, while the self-interest which has derailed so many plans to revive Scottish football in the past has definitely been taking more of a back seat in the recent discussions, according to Dempster, she says the reality is that certain options remain too unpalatable.

“We have been honest in saying that a 16-team league would not work for us at this time. It would mean only 30 league games and we need more games not fewer. But I think people recognise that we need change. Yes, this season has been exciting and it is closer than it has been in many years but many of us are only just surviving. I don’t mean to be overly dramatic but, if you strip it down and take things like the David Goodwillie transfer fee out of the equation, many clubs in the SPL are involved in a very fine balancing act between getting a team on the pitch capable of sufficiently entertaining the fans who turn up and pay their money and paying our bills.”

While she strongly advocates the 12-12 structure at the top, Dempster is less willing to express a preference at the lower end, saying the current SFL clubs are better placed to rule on whether it should be one 18-club league or two divisions of ten. But she does want to see a pyramid structure.

“It is something I feel strongly about for many of the same reasons I want change at the top of the game. Clubs with passion, drive and commitment deserve the chance to progress and things at the bottom get stale and games are meaningless. With a pyramid structure, we would have play-offs and excitement. People with aspirations should not be blocked from coming into the league.”