SFL history: League created boom time for Scotland

IN THE Scottish Football League’s beginning some would read its end. Those opposed to the dissolution of the SFL yesterday may reflect wryly on how the inauguration of the organisation 123 years ago was greeted by some.

Claire McCracken (left), SFL Chairman Jim Ballantyne (centre) and SFL Chief Executive David Longmuir. Picture: SNS

On 30 April, 1890, a meeting of 11 clubs that had become unsatisfied with filling their fixture list with friendlies established that competitive football would come to the country – a full three years before professionalism in the domain was legalised. The respected, opinion-forming Scottish Sport newspaper, smelled a rat. “The first and last objection to the SFL is that it exists,” the organ thundered. “The entire rules stink of finance, money-making and money grabbing.”

As with its demise, the SFL endured a difficult birth. Renton, the Dumbarton club that were the instigators of the SFL, were thrown out of the first championship only five weeks in for playing a game against Edinburgh Saints – in reality a St Bernards side that had fallen foul of the strict ban on professionalism. “So in the very first championship the dreaded asterix appeared at the foot of the table,” says David Thompson, the operations director with the SFL whose 33 years there led to him becoming its de facto historian.

Sign up to our Football newsletter

Sign up to our Football newsletter

History was created when Dumbarton and Rangers shared the first title following a play-off that ended in a 2-2 draw – thelast time it was shared. Within a decade, five of the founders of the SFL had been lost, with Abercorn, Cambuslang, Cowlairs, Vale of Leven and Renton unable to make the transition to the pro ability to attract large numbers of paying spectators.

The ability to spin money also made for a protectionism. A second tier came about but teams were allowed in to the top flight by election only. Not until 1921-22 was promotion and relegation given on sporting merit.

The period immediately after the Second World War brought the first attempt at a breakaway. A number of clubs attempted to set-up a Superleague comprising 14 or 16 teams with the entry criteria ground size. It was repelled with the comment at the time that Scottish football had averted a “slow, lingering death”.

Record attendances and competitiveness not witnessed since followed – a boom time. Seven different clubs won the championship inside two decades and in the second tier Queen of the South could attract a crowd of 15,000, while 28,000 watched Queen’s Park play Kilmarnock. “You look at a player like Gordon Smith from that era,” says Thompson. “His individual accomplishments are perhaps unrivalled. He won five championships, is the only man to win the league with three different clubs, and did all this playing for Hibs, Hearts and Dundee, and not with the Old Firm sides.”

But by the 1970s, spectator numbers were dropping off at an alarming rate, with the 18-club top flight delivering countless meaningless matches. The need for change led to the creation of the ten-club Premier Division and two leagues below of 14.

Thompson’s favourite era was the 1980s. Were it not for Albert Kidd’s intervention for Dundee against Hearts in 1986 that meant the Tynecastle men were pipped by Celtic for the title, from the four years between 1982 and 1986, there would have been four winners of the competition from outside of Glasgow.

He said: “We were together and close knit. And of course it is a mere co-incidence that we haven’t qualified for a World Cup since the breakaway that formed the SPL 15 years ago.”

The lure of money being concentrated among fewer clubs spelt the demise of the SFL as the governing body through which all senior league football was channelled come 1997.

A Deloitte and Touche report helped push the 10-club breakaway to become a reality in time for the 1998-99 season. But with only one up, one down for promotion and relegation, the dominance of Celtic and Rangers and ground criteria denying entry, Thompson sees that far from modernity this set-up is like the structure a century before. He said: “For the past 15 years, the SFL has still run most of the football competitions in this country and enjoyed some great finishes and thrilling play-offs and fine footballing competitions.”

SFL: 1890-2013

1888: The Football League is founded in England.

1890: 14 clubs invited to discuss formation of a league structure in Scotland. Clyde and Queen’s Park decline, the latter correctly predicting that it will lead to professional football in Scotland, while St Bernard’s are not elected, leaving 11 clubs to battle it out for the inaugural Scottish football league season.

1891: Dumbarton and Rangers share first championship on 29 points.

1893: An additional league is set-up below the existing division. Clubs are promoted by ballot.

1914: The First Division continues but the Second Division is suspended after the outbreak of World War I.

1921: Goal average introduced to eradicate play-off matches for tied teams.

1922: Automatic promotion introduced to the Second Division.

1923: The league introduces a third division, only to see it fold three years later.

1932: Willie MacFadyen blasts Motherwell to the championship with 52 goals in a single league season, setting a record which stands to this day and stopping Old Firm duopoly of 27 consecutive titles.

1939: Football in both divisions suspended following the start of World War II.

1946: Professional football restarts and a third division is added once again. The League Cup, a popular distraction during war-time, is continued following the recommencement; Rangers defeat Aberdeen 4-0 in the first final.

1971: Goal difference replaces goal average as the tiebreaker in an attempt to reward more attacking football.

1974: Celtic complete a record run of nine consecutive championships.

1975: New structure of three divisions and creation of Premier Division.

1985: Aberdeen win Premier Division title - the last time a non-Old Firm club triumphed.

1990: The Scottish Football League celebrates its’ centenary year, introducing the Centenary Cup which is won by Dundee. Competition kept and becomes the Challenge Cup.

1994: Scottish football restructures once more with expansion to four divisions of ten teams; three points for a win.

1997: Rangers equal Celtic’s record of nine straight championship wins.

1998: Top division teams break away from the league and create their own governing body, the Scottish Premier League.

2013: Clubs vote in favour of merging the governing bodies which will likely see the Scottish Football League cease to exist in its current form at a meeting on 27 June.CRAIG FOWLER