It's small changes that will make a big difference in league reconstruction
Nobody can agree on the best way forward, but the plans out there appear too radical.
The topic of league reconstruction has been thrust back into the limelight in the past week, with both the SFL and SPL releasing details of their own proposed systems.
The two plans differ in almost every aspect, and with neither plan being actionable without the co-operation of the other body, we face a stalemate.
So why is there such a huge disagreement between the governing bodies about the format of a new league set-up? What are the potential deal breakers, or deal makers, for each of the interested parties? Is it even possible to find a solution which will keep everyone happy?
Like it or not, the key issue behind both the SPL and the SFL is money. The SPL's proposals are aimed at keeping as much money as possible within their organisation, while the SFL are trying to grab some of that money for themselves whilst keeping it away from those pesky non-league upstarts.
The SPL will claim that their organisation attracts the majority of television and commercial revenue, and that the money should be theirs to keep. The SFL will claim that the development of Scottish football is best served by ensuring a “drip-down” effect exists, ensuring that the clubs in the lower tiers can stay alive and remain competitive.
Politics are also in play here. Both organisations want to wrestle as much power as possible away from the other. The SFL want to break up the SPL, while the SPL wants to dilute the power of the SFL.
The outcome of the Rangers saga in the summer proved that money isn't always as important as fairness and integrity, but in this case it seems unlikely that either party would make a decision which would cost them a significant amount of revenue. Upholding existing rules at the risk of financial loss is one thing, but wilfully choosing to implement changes which cost yourself money is quite another.
With that in mind, any reconstruction proposal must be mindful of maintaining the clubs' current income levels. The SFL proposal is flawed for this very reason. They have proposed a 16 team top flight without any splits or play-offs, a move which would see clubs dropping from 19 home games a season to 15 – a reduction of almost 25%.
The normal counter-argument to this, and the one which the SFL have attempted, is to introduce a League Cup group stage. But attendances in the League Cup have historically been much lower than those for league matches, and only two more home matches would be guaranteed under their plans. Additionally, it is worth noting that the League Cup had group stages right up until the 1980s, at which point they were scrapped due to poor attendances.
Even with that constraint on the number of games, there are a wide variety of potential league systems to choose from. A 10-team top division with everyone playing each other four times is something we've had experience of in the past, but this proved very unpopular with supporters due to the lack of variety of opposition.
A return to a 10 team league was one of the recommendations of the McLeish report, but the move was rejected by the SPL clubs just under two years ago. If the SPL and SFL cannot agree on their own reconstruction plan, there are obvious fears that the SFA would opt for this unpopular system.
At the other end of the scale, an 18 or 20 team league with a single home and away format would provide more variety, but may also lead to larger inequalities within the division. It would also leave a large mid-table area where teams would have little to play for.
Some would argue that these meaningless mid-table games could be used to field young players, but the best young players already get a chance in the SPL. The likes of Tony Watt, Ryan Fraser and Kenny McLean have all been important players for their clubs this season.
There would be concerns over a lack of depth. The league below an 18 or 20 team top flight would almost certainly be exclusively part-time, which could create a massive financial black hole for a relegated club. The larger nations such as England, Spain and Germany have larger leagues, but they also tend to have more European spots available and greater strength in depth within their nation.
The most likely solution is a halfway house somewhere between those extremes, and indeed that is what we have in the SPL at the moment. These systems make use of a split (or play-offs) to increase the number of games, something which doesn't sit well with everyone.
The main advantages of the split are that it gives mid-table teams a target to aim for, and also allows the fixture list to be manipulated to produce “winner takes all” matches in the European and relegation battles.
The criticism of splits are that they can be confusing, and also that clubs can finish lower in the table despite having more points than a higher club. The latter point is a little simplistic, as the lower placed club will have faced easier opposition after the split.
The current 12-team system with a split has been fairly successful in giving teams something to play for until late in the season, but has been criticised for being unequal. The split comes after three complete rounds of fixtures, meaning that teams don't necessarily have exactly equal fixture lists.
The SPL's proposal of two leagues of 12 splitting into three leagues of eight would resolve this, but creates more issues. Clubs are the lower end of the top section and upper end of the bottom section may have little to play for in the latter part of the season.
Clubs in the middle eight would have their points tallies reset to zero, given that these points would have been gained in different divisions. This could lead to sides “easing up” as soon as they realised they were going to be in this section.
A 14 team league is another possibility, with or without a split. It would be possible to have each side playing each other three times for a total of 39 matches, but this would produce an even more unequal fixture list than the current system. An alternative would be to have a split after two rounds of home and away fixtures – this could be 6-8, 7-7 or 8-6.
The 7-7 split has the problem of having teams sitting out each week, which could be especially problematic in the final weekend. It could be considered unfair to have teams going into their final match knowing exactly what result they need.
The 8-6 system would give the top clubs 40 league matches, which could cause fixture congestion since these clubs are also more likely to have good runs in the cup or even Europe.
The 6-8 approach may be the most sensible of the three – the clubs in the top six may have two fewer home games, but their matches are likely to be against the better supported sides.
The SFL's proposal of a 16 team league could be viable if the system was tweaked to include either a split or play-offs. One option would be a simple 8-8 split, but this would again have an uneven fixture list.
Alternatively, Belgium have a rather complicated system which splits into groups of different sizes to play off for the title, European spots and relegation respectively. This would be a radical solution which probably wouldn't go down well with traditionalists, but it would guarantee excitement at the end of the season.
Reconstruction has much more to it than the size of the top flight. A change to the number of relegation places from the top flight would be welcomed by almost everyone. At the very least, a play-off would provide guaranteed end of season excitement – something which would be of keen interest to TV companies and commercial partners.
Likewise, European play-offs could be explored. If these were in conjunction with a split, then the team finishing top of the lower half could be given entry to the European play-offs, giving the top clubs in the bottom section something to play for.
Another important step forward would be the introduction of a pyramid system below the current league system. At the moment, ambitious non-league clubs are currently stifled by the closed shop of the SFL, which only welcomes new members if one of their existing clubs goes bust. Some non-league clubs, most notably many Junior sides, have little interest in joining the league setup, but those who do seek progression should be afforded that chance.
There has been much talk about a “42 club solution” to the reconstruction debate, but in fact there is no reason to limit the discussion to the existing league clubs. The likes of Cove Rangers and Spartans have shown consistent interest in joining the league system, and their views should also be taken into account. Any well-run club with an interest in playing within the national league system should be welcomed with open arms.
It could in fact be argued that implementing the latter three changes would have far more impact on our game than simply playing around with league sizes. None of the three proposals would meet with much in the way of resistance from supporters, and they would make for a more interesting climax to the season across the divisions.
In the absence of consensus between the governing bodies, it is surely tempting to focus their energy on these simple but positive modifications. They may be small changes, but they could make a big difference.