Tom English: ‘Despite times of austerity with drains on finances, supporters are coming out in greater numbers’

SFA chief executive Stewart Regan, who has delayed a decision on Craig Levein, predicted doom and gloom for the SPL without Rangers. Photograph: Craig Watson/SNS
SFA chief executive Stewart Regan, who has delayed a decision on Craig Levein, predicted doom and gloom for the SPL without Rangers. Photograph: Craig Watson/SNS
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IF ONLY Stewart Regan was as decisive in his pronouncement on Craig Levein’s future as Scotland manager as he was in the summer when predicting Armageddon for the domestic game in the post-Rangers age.

Still we wait for news of Levein’s fate, a prevarication that is both needless and deeply unfair on the man in the middle of this malaise.

Whatever you think about Levein, he doesn’t deserve to be cast into this pitiful situation where some of the blazerati at Hampden fumble about in the dark apparently looking for more information when all the relevant information is staring them in the face. In terms of football administration this is the equivalent of 4-6-0 in Prague. Hesitant, afraid to commit, embarrassing.

On Tuesday, somebody is going to be naming a Scotland squad for the forthcoming friendly with Luxembourg and the fact that we won’t know – or more to the point, Levein won’t know – who that somebody is going to be until 24 hours beforehand is a joke to beat all jokes. Either back him and try to pull off a miracle in justifying such a decision, or sack him and move on.

Regan came up with one of the phrases of the summer but, if there’s a slow and lingering death going on right now, then it has more to do with the man charged with the task of taking the nation to the World Cup in Brazil in two years’ time rather than any financial catastrophe in the SPL, as Regan predicted.

These are tough times for the SFA’s chief executive. Those words of his – including a vision of social unrest in an apocalyptic SPL future if Rangers were not allowed back in – have not been forgotten and they’re not likely to be so long as his forecast proves so wide of the mark.

Nobody is saying that things are dandy in the SPL without Rangers, but Armageddon it most definitely is not. There is less money about, of course. Sky won’t be stumping up the same amount that they did when Rangers were around and clubs are going to feel the pinch as a consequence, no question.

But here’s the thing. In the summer there were forecasts of attendances falling away to half-nothing in the wake of Rangers’ demise, but they have not. Supporters at most clubs have actually rallied round. During the week, if you looked at the paltry crowds at some of the League Cup quarter-finals, you might have concluded that the prophets of doom were right all along but the League Cup has never been an accurate indication of supporter interest. Many see it as an expense too far in these troubling economic times. The SPL is the testing ground and, if you crunch the numbers, you find some pretty interesting things.

Compare the attendances of the ten clubs – excluding Ross County and Dundee who weren’t in the league last year – and seven of them are showing increased crowds, with only Celtic (down 7.46 per cent), St Mirren (down 6.7 per cent) and Hearts (down 15.5 per cent) showing a fall. And there are mitigating circumstances in two of those cases. Celtic fans now have the glamour, and the cost, of the Champions League to think about. It’s no surprise that some of their number are prioritising Barcelona, Moscow and Benfica over some of the domestic fare.

Hearts are down over 2,000 fans per game but you have to look at what is going on there, too. Last season, Hearts’ first six home games included matches against Hibs, Rangers, Celtic, Dundee United and Aberdeen. This season, their first six visitors to Tynecastle in the SPL have been St Johnstone, Inverness, Dundee, Kilmarnock, Motherwell and Ross County. Their bumper gates have yet to come.

Elsewhere, the numbers are good, albeit at a very early stage in the season. Club chairmen and chief executives asked their people to back them in the summer when Rangers exited the league and they have done. Hibs are up nearly 9 per cent, Aberdeen and Inverness are up more than 10 per cent, St Johnstone are up 14 per cent, Kilmarnock are up 16.6 per cent and Dundee United are up 22.6 per cent. Of course, some of these attendances are rising from an extremely low base but that’s not the point.

The point is that, despite living in a time of great austerity with so many drains on the family finances, supporters are coming out in greater numbers than they did last season. That is a hell of an achievement. Never mind that St Johnstone’s 14 per cent equates to just 565 more fans per game or that Inverness’s increase means that only another 404 punters are coming through the gate every second week. The point is not that they are rising in small digits but that they are rising at all.

This was supposed to be a slow and lingering death, remember?

Some figures jump out. In their Highland derby with Ross County, Inverness drew a crowd of 6,766, which was more than attended their first home fixture with Rangers last season.

In their Dundee derby, United got an attendance of 13,538, three thousand more than turned up for their home match with Rangers at the beginning of last season.

This is not to say that the league is thriving without Rangers but there is a certain energy about its early months.

Celtic have been outstanding in Europe, which makes them an even greater target for their challengers, some of whom have met that challenge brilliantly.

St Johnstone have beaten them in Perth. Hibs came from behind twice to get a draw in Glasgow.

Last weekend, Kilmarnock beat them at Celtic Park for the first time in 57 years.

The battle for second place in the SPL is real and it is interesting and any one of four or five clubs could grab it. More clubs feel that they have more to play for. More fans, too.

Given the SFA’s feeble uncertainty on the Levein situation you have to wonder if anybody at Hampden really knows what a slow and lingering death actually looks like.