SFL Focus: Uncertain summer as clubs fight to stay full time

Tomorrow night, Scotland's Professional Footballers' Association will host their annual gala dinner to reward those amongst its membership who have lifted what gloom continues to descend on this country's football scene.

It will be a night of enjoyment in advance of a summer of uncertainty. Possibly - in fact, probably - the most uncertain close season yet for a large percentage of those who ply a football trade in the Scottish Football League awaits.

Fraser Wishart, the SPFA's chief executive, is adamant reconstruction to a top division of ten teams has to happen sooner rather than later, primarily to protect those one league below.

Under the Scottish Premier League's preferred scheme, which continues to flounder amid internal opposition, funds currently bestowed on clubs 11 and 12 would instead be pumped into Division One. As things stand, as Inverness recently discovered and Falkirk's next set of accounts will also highlight, commercial revenue on account of relegation can drop tenfold from close to 1million.

The outcome of that, bluntly, means clubs are dismantled in order to remain full-time in an on-field capacity. Now, pressure is such that full-time status is dangerously close to being at a premium.

"Where reconstruction has to happen is to save some of those clubs in our second tier," Wishart explained. "Forget the top level for now, we have to protect the First Division."

That sentiment is in opposition to some within the SPL, who doubt an obligation to the rest of Scottish football. One brief glimpse at the lower levels, though, provides a grim picture.

The latest tactic employed by some first, second and third division clubs is to release players at the end of their contracts, possibly as early as the day after the final game of the season, before re-signing them under dispensation from the SFL in advance of pre-season training.

Players are then essentially on only nine or ten-month deals and without income during the close season.

"A lot of clubs will run now with no players signed over the summer, or only the two or three who have longer-term deals," Wishart added.

"We ask for a list of free transfers from all clubs at the end of each season, so that we can circulate that round other clubs. What we'll find now is that some teams are reluctant to put certain names on that. They don't want to alert other clubs that their better players are available, then they will re-sign them. It isn't a widely-publicised tactic, but it is common."

Funding over the period of what contracts exist isn't exactly in vast supply. Clubs themselves point to dwindling attendances as a major cause of that. Morton, who not long ago handed out contracts worth more than 1,000 a week, and Partick Thistle are just two clubs who will slash budgets this summer, offering no more than one-year deals in the process, in a desperate bid to remain full-time.

Falkirk's staff is also expected to be culled in the likely event that they fail to bounce back instantly to the top-flight and Dundee's troubles are all-too well documented. Such outfits are among the largest in the SFL, which hardly augurs well for the rest.

"I am aware of lads who have finished an apprenticeship at a First Division club and been offered one-year contracts in which you are lucky if the wage reaches three figures a week," Wishart said. "You end up thinking, is this a real job? The penny is now beginning to drop for players in their mid-late 20s who realise lower league level is the one they are going to play at. If that's the case, is it worth signing a nine or ten-month contract in which it's questionable if you are earning above the national minimum wage?"

The solution commonly found appears sensible. "Guys are going out and finding a part-time job, playing football part-time and are happier. Apart from anything else, there is a serious mental pressure over the summer. Players are wondering where they can go, year after year."

And for the PFA, it is summer rather than winter which provides evidence of discontent. This one could be the most harrowing yet.