Aidan Smith: Fortitude of fans has been heroic

Neil Doncaster, surrounded by the SPFL trophies following the sponsorship announcement with Ladbrokes, hasn't made his views on reconstruction particularly clear. Picture: SNS
Neil Doncaster, surrounded by the SPFL trophies following the sponsorship announcement with Ladbrokes, hasn't made his views on reconstruction particularly clear. Picture: SNS
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AS MONTROSE fought for their little lives yesterday I wonder if any of their older fans thought back exactly 40 years to what we might call – and it’s not every day in journalism that you get to contrive a sentence like this – the apotheosis of a Gable Endie.

The club with the loveliest nickname in all of Scottish football achieved their highest-ever finish. It could have been higher because with only two games left Montrose were set to become champions of the old Second Division, only to lose them both. Had they not fallen at the last, then under normal circumstances the title would have earned them promotion to the First, a grand prize for the douce Angus town which had already given the football world the great Hibernian winger Gordon Smith, would soon give it the European Cup-winning captain John McGovern, and used to have Hugh MacDiarmid scribbling for the local paper, the Montrose Review.

‘Meaningless games exist anyway, even in the smaller division’

Normal circumstances, though, didn’t apply. The route to the top tier had suddenly been blocked off by league reconstruction. Now, whose stupid idea was that?

Montrose must have nursed a deep grievance over what happened in 1975. They continued to cause trouble in the cups, and indeed just a few weeks into Scotland’s new dawn they brought down Gordon Smith’s successors at Hibs with the help of an almighty Links Park typhoon.

Soon after that, the Gable Endies began their drift back to obscurity. The reduced number of clubs, the rest of us were told, was exactly what was needed for the wellbeing of the national game. And we’ve been arguing about that and calling for the addition of more teams pretty much ever since.

Last week as usual the debate raged. On Friday the headlines read: “Clubs slam door on Doncaster’s vision of larger 16-team league.” SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster had apparently wanted the top league to get back to close to what it had been like when he was a nipper down in England and completely oblivious to its charms. Ah, but had he?

I returned to the previous day’s reports. This, when asked for his personal view on 16 teams, was what he said: “It would remove some problems and create some new ones as you would end up with a lot more meaningless mid-table games. Yes, bigger leagues might be a potential solution but much of the drama and excitement comes from smaller divisions.” There you go: clear as mud.

Doncaster was only doing what he always does in such situations, which makes use of the word “vision” somewhat hopeful: he was deferring to the clubs who will ultimately decide on change, if there’s to be any at all. A ring-round of them, although it didn’t seem comprehensive, found there was “little appetite” for a larger league. The just-announced sponsorship deal with Ladbrokes and the intrigue provided by the play-offs seem to be encouraging the view that, for the time being, we should leave things as they are.

Such conservatism wasn’t around in the mid-1970s. The top tier would be almost halved: 18 teams down to ten. You could almost make a comparison with the musical revolution of the time. Progressive rock was out, having been deemed too flabby and long-winded, with too many tedious drum solos. In came short, sharp, quick, lean punk rock.

Alex Cameron was “Chiefy” among Scotland’s football press-corps. When I shared an office with him later I could see no traces of punkery – e.g. closed-up holes from a nose-ring – but Alex was enthusiastic for change. In the Rothman’s Football Yearbook previewing the final season before reconstruction he wrote that Celtic’s ninth title in a row had “at long last” persuaded legislators into “a bold move to extract the imbalance from the championship”. He predicted there would be a “pressure chamber”, with clubs scrambling for membership of the elite. “Will this be an instant cure for Scottish football?” asked Cameron. “Almost certainly not, but it is a move towards sensible change.” The prevailing view was that a top-ten league would wipe matches of little or no consequence from the calendar, although interestingly Alex didn’t include this point in his piece. The new set-up would “throw out a challenge to supporters,” he continued. “If they don’t turn out to see the revamped games then even more desperate measures will have to be taken. Clubs could disappear and others will be forced to amalgamate.”

Cameron reckoned the historic last 18-team division could be won “easily” by Celtic and mentioned that ex-Celt Tommy Gemmell thought his Dundee would end up champs. In the end Hibs were runners-up and Ayr United a highly-creditable seventh, but Dundee didn’t win it (sixth) and neither did Celtic (third), Rangers taking the flag thanks largely to the goals of the two Dereks, Johnstone and Parlane.

Maybe you thought I was joking when I said the much-reduced division was doubted almost right away. Chiefy confirmed this in an essay penned after the inaugural season. Even though there had been “no marked overall improvement in the standard” the experiment would continue “at least for another year”. Cameron did think there had been more competitiveness, although this doesn’t really show in the final analysis with Rangers under “ex-jungle fighter Jock Wallace” romping to a treble.

So where are we now? Frankly when you think about the chopping and changing there has been in those 40 years – 12 to ten and back again, seven re-jigs in all – the patience and fortitude shown by fans has been exceptional and heroic.

They’ve seen the days of big TV money and endured the Sunday lunchtimes and Friday nights of unhelpful scheduling in return for peanuts. They’ve counted in the fancy-dan foreigners and counted them out again. They’ve witnessed miracles: clubs being magically “saved” from relegation. They’ve accepted the roles of uncredited extras for the four-part drama called The Old Firm. They’ve endured high prices, repetition and the perishing split.

Despite the best efforts of the New Firm, Chiefy’s imbalance remains. But Doncaster’s meaningless games exist anyway, even in the smaller division. No clubs have withered and died through neglect – only been threatened with extinction through ineptitude and greed.

This must suggest the hodden mass still love the game – just – but love it must truly be, however perverse. So why don’t the administrators – and the clubs – trust the supporters to love it even more if all the leagues, not just the top flight, were to become bigger, more varied, more interesting?

A conspiracy theory is doing the rounds, of course – there’s always one of them. It suggests that reconstruction may happen to conveniently propel Rangers back into the highest tier, should they fail by their own efforts. Well, I think fans of other clubs would thole that. They’d point out that assisting the Old Firm was the point of reconstruction originally, and every occasion since.