SCOTTISH Football League clubs acted as the game’s conscience in the summer. Now, the league season that will kick off on Saturday for them will see elements of their competition seep into the public consciousness as never before.
A desire to serve natural justice rather than opportunism underpinned the decision of the 30 SFL clubs to vote that a reconstituted Rangers should begin life in the Third Division. Yet, undoubtedly the rebirth of one of Britain’s biggest football brands in the lowest senior tier of the Scottish game has presented opportunities for the SFL beyond what was previously conceivable. As well as, it must be said, a number of unwelcome consequences… which you won’t find the league’s chief executive David Longmuir giving the oxygen of publicity.
That is understandable. The “Rangers factor” has meant a live television contract for games involving the Ibrox club that will bring in £1.2 million over three years and provide the SFL with “the chance to shine” and “showcase all that we do well”, according to Longmuir. The deal will also ensure that general interest and exposure, attendances and sponsorship deals and commercial deals – how much will league backers Irn-Bru feel they’ve won a watch? – will all experience a huge upturn. “Everyone in the SFL will benefit,” Longmuir says of the television contract that will see five Rangers home games and ten away games beamed live across the Sky and ESPN platforms, though he is unwilling to give specifics of the monetary split. Of more interest to him is how energised the entire league set-up seems by the season like no other for the SFL subsequent to the Scottish Premier League breakaway of 1998.
“I was at Annan last Saturday for the first round of the Ramsdens Cup and watched them beat Livingston on their excellent 3G pitch,” he says. “Then on Sunday I was in Brechin for a day of great excitement and drama as they put up a terrific show for 120 minutes against Rangers and weren’t too far away despite facing a strong squad with a number of proven internationalists. That whetted the appetite.”
Longmuir chides that it is “typical of Scottish journalism to look for obstacles and problems” when giving an emphatic “no” to the question as to whether he can foresee any negatives to the participation of the new Rangers in the Third Division. One SFL observer has likened the Ibrox club’s appearance in the fourth tier to a stag party in that everyone welcomes the money such occasions bring, but no one wants to deal with any potential fall-out.
The SFL tags itself as “the home of real football”, but there is something very unreal about a Rangers in the Third Division. The club has the potential to attract more punters for one home game than any rivals will for an entire season of home encounters. Equally, with Dean Shiels recruited on a wage that could reputedly rise to £8,000 a week, one Rangers player will earn more than the entire first-team squads of the sides he will be lining up against on a weekly basis.
Of course, the responsibility for the skewing of the football landscape lies not with anyone in the SFL but those who ran the old Rangers into the ground. Nevertheless, certain bookmakers are taking wagers on Rangers going through the whole league season unbeaten. Longmuir offers a different take. “We will see good Scottish youngsters being given the opportunity to develop their talents in front of the television cameras and in a high-level environment,” he says.
“Equally, there are many seasoned pros in the SFL who will be out to prove their worth. I firmly believe the entire game will be given a lift by the whole new competitive reality within it. And I don’t think the season will be as straightforward for Rangers as many imagine.”
The concern for those in the First Division is that the SFL’s flagship league might be squeezed out as the spotlight veers between the SPL above and the set-up two leagues below.
Surveying the managerial profiles across the three divisions of the SFL has Longmuir arguing that the league had real vibrancy before any Rangers joined it.
“We must have about half of the last Scotland squad to take the country to a World Cup making their way in the SFL,” he says.
“How John Collins and John Hughes perform at Livingston, whether Steven Pressley can continue his great work with Falkirk last year, and Jackie McNamara’s development as a coach at Partick Thistle will all be fascinating aspects of the First. As will Jim Jefferies’ work at Dunfermline, and Colin Cameron’s efforts at Cowdenbeath. Below that you have Paul Hartley at Alloa and Gordon Durie at East Fife. Then there is Ally McCoist, who has already been through so much in his relatively short time as Rangers manager.”
He has never been through the grind of the Third Division, and never expected to, mind you.