Season 2013-14 preview: No cure for the afflicted

Having become Clydesdale Bank Premier League Champions in 2012-13, the new set-up will offer no stiffer competition to Celtic in the coming season. Picture: Robert Perry
Having become Clydesdale Bank Premier League Champions in 2012-13, the new set-up will offer no stiffer competition to Celtic in the coming season. Picture: Robert Perry
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THE reaction to the logo created for the all-new, all-clubs-encompassing, super-duper Scottish Professional Football League betrays the feelings of the wider football public in the country on the possibility we are on the dawn of a meaningful new era.

Few found themselves in agreement with Graeme Souness – paid to come along to the launch this week and say some of the right things – who interpreted the lion with tongue lashing as suggesting “you are strong and dominant, which hopefully we will be”. More fans found themselves of a similar mind to the one who remarked that the logo looked like the king of the jungle chewing on a rat. That jibe was about the only roar that the big beast of the SPFL elicited.

Regrettably, it is hard not be cynical about the top-flight tinkering that followed a forced union of full-time and part-time clubs born out of a concerted campaign of scaremongering. Regrettably, it is hard to be anything but cynical.

The window-dressing of renaming Scotland’s four football tiers the Premiership, the Championship, League One and League Two hardly made for an auspicious start. In truth, it was merely an exercise in borrowing the clothes of the English senior football set-up, a peculiar decision since these were donned precisely because the top flight there is operated by a different organisation to the other three set-ups.

Of course, the introduction of play-offs between Scotland’s top flight and its second tier will make a material difference to the nature of competition at the lower end of this structure. It might even, what do you know, ensure that some seasons our country’s top flight no longer has the lowest drop-out rate of any comparable league in Europe.

The fact is, however, that the rebranding and the (slight) reshaping of the competition won’t impact on the very difficulties that faced the now-consigned-to-history SPL. The existence of an SPFL Premiership, which gets under way on Friday night when promoted Partick Thistle host Dundee United, won’t do anything for the financial ill-health of some members.

There are dark mutterings that Hearts may not be the last club this year to suffer an insolvency event. Indeed, with the absence of a sponsor – which new SPFL chief executive and old SPL chief executive Neil Doncaster attempted to present as a minor detail in petitioning that potential backers had only had “three weeks of the clarity and certainty” they seek before becoming involved – there might be a little less in the pot for teams that need every penny.

The new SPFL Premiership won’t – because it simply can’t – result in a more competitive top-flight environment. Celtic will once more walk to the title because they have a turnover that could run to 12 times any other team in their league field. It is the fault of no one but those who owned Rangers that without the Ibrox club’s brand Scotland’s new top flight will generate ticket sales around a million fewer and television audiences for televised games several millions below what was true of the old SPL a couple of seasons ago.

Yet, in dealing with Rangers requiring to start again in the Third Division last year, Scotland’s top flight proved more robust than many of the doom-mongers dared suggest. Almost half the teams increased their attendances, and more than half did not require to put all the lights out and hide in cupboards when bank managers came calling.

Moreover, the football produced by Motherwell, Inverness Caledonian Thistle, St Johnstone, Kilmarnock and St Mirren, in particular, was of a more attractive and laudable brand than economics ought to have allowed. And the fact that a number of clubs, Celtic at their head, have now reconciled their financial and football challenges to the point where requirements off-field are not continually diminishing the product on it, is where the SPFL could provide the framework for a measure of regeneration. More than £1m has been pushed down to the second tier, or the Championship as we will eventually get used to calling it. Meanwhile, the play-off format means three clubs beyond its winners will still be entertaining promotion hopes after the conclusion of the regular season. All that is like “Christmas coming early” for the clubs in the old First Division, according to John Collins, pictured right, now Scotland under-19s coach and most recently director of football at Livingston in that tier.

“The play-offs will stimulate the whole league,” he said. “Every single team in that First Division will start the season thinking they can get into the play-offs, which hasn’t been the case previously. A lot of the teams have had nothing to play for so it will stimulate coaches, managers, players and fans. Everyone’s a winner, they’ll have been lifted to another level. For the Premiership’s bottom six it’s a different kind of pressure, a tension about them possibly going down. Again, that will stimulate the crowd. All the changes make a massive difference. Look at England. Play-offs stimulated their whole structure. Take them away and you’ve not got a lot to play for. Common sense has prevailed at every level. Reorganisation means there’s two governing bodies instead of three, which never made sense, and I think you’ve got to compliment the Premier League teams for redistributing the wealth. That’s a good gesture because it benefits Scottish football.

“It takes the pressure away from the owners of First Division clubs. They probably lose about £200,000 so now they can have a relaxed football club, knowing they can stay full-time. Their key is managing it – don’t be stupid with that extra budget and stretch your money up. There’s no stress or tension.”

And Collins believes the impact of having players at the second level receiving full-time football education could be profound for the national team. He can give examples of how it already has been. “You need full-time football for these kids leaving school. Your [Robert] Snodgrass, [Graham] Dorrans at Livingston and James McArthur at Hamilton are boys who wouldn’t have come through to play for Scotland if their clubs had gone part-time. As soon as you go part-time your development goes. It’s rare that a part-time player continues up the ladder. It was important for the First Division teams to stay full-time. So there are huge positives to this. It guarantees they’ll be able to take those kids on full-time from school. At Livingston we took 11 from school. That’s not many but it is 11 who are on the training pitch every day with a chance of progressing to the first team and maybe going to the Premier League.”

Or Premiership, as we now have. If you took Celtic out of the set-up, what we would also have is a league that a clutch of teams might fancy their chances of winning. That is to be celebrated. However, the bottom line is that this is the case because of top lines. So many of those who light up Scotland’s top tier are so rapidly enticed to fire up their ambitions for vastly superior salaries. In the case of Celtic’s Gary Hooper and Victor Wanyama, it was fame as well as money that prompted their departures to the Premier League south of the Border. Their loss will not be felt by the club in domestic circles, though could hamper their hopes of making an impression in the Champions League group stages ... should they get there.

Only Aberdeen of all Scotland’s top-flight clubs have added to their squad without having any key members taken away. And so that demands the perennial parlour game of tipping them to claim second place and awake from a slumber that Rip van Winkle would consider was excessive. Retaining such as Niall McGinn and Mark Reynolds, and acquiring such as Barry Robson, Gregg Wylde, Willo Flood and Michael Hector gives the squad assembled by new manager Derek McInnes a strong look. Although he has been a consistent miracle worker, Stuart McCall at Motherwell might require the powers of Merlin to finish only with Celtic ahead once more in the wake of losing 27-goal player of the year Michael Higdon, Henrik Ojamaa, Darren Randolph and Nicky Law.

It is futile to attempt to assess a number of the middle-ranking clubs such as Dundee United, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Ross County because they have so many new faces that have yet to give any real indication of their worth, or lack of it. Of course, we can’t help ourselves and in so doing there seems a possible clear divide between strivers and strugglers. 
St Johnstone can be placed in the former category after their glorious exploits in removing Rosenborg from Europe this week. Hibernian, minus so-often-the-saviour Leigh Griffiths, can be put in the latter bracket after their continental ejection in the most egregious circumstances.

The problems facing an already under pressure Pat Fenlon may be dwarved by those of Hibs’ capital neighbours Hearts. Their summer plunge into administration means they start the season with a 15-point deduction and a squad that is the shadow of the shadow they operated with for much of last season. And yet, player for player, the Tynecastle club could find themselves only in play-off peril because manager Gary Locke still appears to have more talent, and top-flight experience, at his disposal than is true for his Partick Thistle counterpart Alan Archibald.

If Thistle do return from whence they came after a single season, they at least know the drop is no longer as precipitous as it was previously. Hurrah to the SPFL for that and here’s to the hope we will be grateful to the set-up for much more in time.