Scottish football chiefs can salvage new deal

Hearts chief executive David Southern had hoped to see 12-12-18 get the go-ahead. Picture: SNS
Hearts chief executive David Southern had hoped to see 12-12-18 get the go-ahead. Picture: SNS
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CRUMPLED in a wastebin in the corner of Hampden Park’s boardroom is no place for the SPL’s 12-12-18 proposals. The plan was derided, for some valid reasons, and ultimately failed when St Mirren and Ross County voted against it on Monday. Yet some of its components would breathe new life into Scottish football and ought to be salvaged rather than simply tossed out with the rubbish.

One body to govern all Scotland’s professional leagues was a key part of the reform ideas. Likewise, fairer distribution of financial revenue is vital given the perilous state of some clubs. Marry those two to the public wish for expanded leagues and Scottish football suddenly becomes a far more attractive proposition for both supporters and investors. Concocting such a plan wouldn’t be too difficult given those in charge are now starting afresh, although other hurdles would still need to be overcome.

The issue of where our national sport goes from here is on the minds of directors and chairmen across the country this week. SPL clubs say they will not revisit the 12-12-18 issue but they would be naive to ignore some of its key points. Sooner or later, change has to come. The recent National Football Survey conducted by the Scottish Football Association revealed 87 per cent of people want a top division of more than 12 teams. A majority of 51 per cent would prefer 16 teams.

The Scottish Football League suggested a 16-team top flight, ten-team second tier and 
16-team third division earlier this year – an idea welcomed more than any other so far. However, the need to create excitement and maintain a certain number of home matches saw the SPL proceed with their own idea until 12-12-18 disintegrated on Monday afternoon at the National Stadium.

It might be worth Neil 
Doncaster, the SPL chief executive, revisiting that boardroom to pull the crushed papers out of the dustbin. The former Hearts chairman Leslie Deans explained why “cherry-picking” from the 12-12-18 plan is now a possibility and how bigger leagues could be implemented as a means of taking football forward.

“In theory, that could certainly happen,” he told the Evening News. “The 12-12-18 proposals were to be taken as a package altogether, but if they’ve been rejected it may well be that the cherry-picking can take place now. An expanded league with one controlling body might now be something that is looked at going forward.

“I think it could work depending how it’s done. I don’t want to see a situation where clubs lose games from the fixture lists. Our clubs need a certain number of home games each season because these are what generate revenue. We simply can’t afford to take revenue away from teams that are already financially impoverished, so that would be an absolute necessity of any reconstruction.

“The other worry about an expanded league is there could be quite a disparity between top and bottom.

“We already have a considerable disparity between the top and bottom of the SPL and that could widen by bringing more teams in the league. A lot of people have said they don’t want to see teams playing each other four times a season.

“Football has got to listen to the fans here if the fans are against that. However, we have to find a way of ensuring there are enough home games to keep the fans piling through turnstiles.”

That need for a minimum number of games was behind Doncaster dismissing reconstruction plans for a 16-team top flight late last year. The Scottish Football League’s chief executive, David Longmuir, was applauded for suggesting the 16-10-16 format. However, the idea was labelled “unworkable” by Doncaster and SPL clubs due to the drop in fixtures involved.

Bigger leagues, as Deans points out, bring more meaningless matches in the mid-table area. However, that also relieves pressure on managers to an extent while allowing the chance to nurture young players at first-team level. None of the above points should be overlooked when, not if, league reconstruction talks recommence.

“A bigger league will bring more meaningless games and history shows us that meaningless games don’t bring fans in,” continued Deans. “When there’s nothing at stake, people simply don’t want to go. That is a slight concern. If we are looking for a balance, that may come from the chance to blood more youngsters. That’s something I think we have to look at.”

Although supporters were generally against the 12-12-18 proposals, Deans pointed out their merits from a financial perspective. “Scottish football desperately needs a shot in the arm financially. We’ve seen Rangers go bust, we see Dunfermline in administration with a chance of going bust, and we have the ongoing financial turmoil at Tynecastle. The 12-12-18 proposals were an opportunity to give the game a bit of stability, which it desperately needs.

“Bringing the leagues under one body with a fairer distribution of income would have been helpful. Only Ross County and St Mirren can say why they voted against it. No more than six to eight weeks ago, we had a broad consensus in the SPL regarding these proposals. They had been worked out for a long time and the clubs said that, in principle, we could go with this.

“Now two clubs have gone back on what was agreed and that is disappointing. Whilst everybody is entitled to their view, you would at least hope that when somebody has stated their position round the boardroom table, that they stick with it. I’m sure that disappointment will be echoed by the other ten clubs who stuck to what was initially agreed.

“Where do we go from here? A golden opportunity has been missed. I don’t quite know where we go from here to be honest with you.”