Cost cutting and rebranding loom as Scottish clubs struggle to cope with the consequences of the credit crunch.
By Dan Brennan in Glasgow
As the credit crunch bites, Scottish football is awash with plans for reforms designed to cut costs and generate new revenue.
Over two years after it was first mooted, a Scottish Premier League plan to expand to a second tier has taken a big step towards becoming reality. The scheme would require the 10 teams currently in the Scottish First Division to breakaway from the Scottish Football League (SFL) to form the ‘SPL2’.
SPL chiefs claim that the initiative would “enhance and strengthen” the Scottish game. Not surprisingly it has been resisted by the SFL, who insisted that any club wishing to join a new structure must give two years notice, and they were originally backed by 22 of their 30 members in a vote against the plan.
However, a Scottish Football Association arbitration panel set up to rule on the validity of the scheme has now given it the green light.
Cynics suggest it is no more than a rebranding exercise, designed to dress mutton up as lamb. However, with the spectre of the recently bankrupted Gretna looming large, for smaller, cash-strapped outfits the appeal of sharing in the SPL’s TV revenues is will assume increasing appeal. That, of course, will be of little comfort for those in the Second and Third Division, who would likely find themselves even more out on a limb.
The SPL is meanwhile forging ahead with plans to scrap its reserve league, possibly as early as next season. It would mean some 100 players could find themselves out of work, as teams look to trims quads and cut wage bills. It will also mean a shift of focus onto the U19 teams.
“It’s about finding what’s best in terms of player development,” says SPL spokesman, Grieg Mailer. “We used to have an Under-21 league with very strict guidelines but we did away with that five years ago. We’re constantly reviewing our options and it’s all about finding the right system with which to nurture talent. We have to as whether the reserve league is fit for purpose and whether we would be better just continuing with an Under-19 league.”
Meanwhile, Celtic are exploring the idea of rehousing their second-string team in the Scottish Third Division. The concept is not a new one. In Spain, and in Germany, top flight clubs have long fielded B teams in the lower leagues, with the proviso they are denied the possibility of playing in the same league as their senior counterparts or meeting in the domestic cups to avoid conflict of interests.
The scheme would throw up the interesting prospect of the likes of fringe player Massimo Donati, once of Milan, turning out in front of a few hundred fans on a Tuesday night in Elgin. He might find himself joined by a horde of young Magyars, as Celtic have just struck a partnership with Hungarian club Ujpest, and have already brought over two of their teenagers on trial.
Gordon Smith, chief executive of the SFA, is a fan of the initiative. “I spoke about it a long time ago. I couldn’t understand why the Old Firm weren’t pushing to do that. I felt it would be a way of Rangers and Celtic getting their players good experience,” said Smith. “It would give the younger players a chance to play in front of crowds and, at the same time, lower-league clubs would be bringing in welcome revenue in terms of increased gates.”
Not everyone is so thrilled by the idea. “If Celtic were allowed to play a team in the Third Division then what would be the point of someone like me putting money into a club to make them better?” asks East Stirlingshire’s owner Spencer Fearn. “Celtic would win the league so fair play and a sense of balanced competition would go out the window.”
Smith has meanwhile suffered a setback on another of his pet causes – the reintroduction of a winter break, which he wants to run through January and February.
“There are only two countries in Europe as far as I know that don’t have a winter shutdown of some kind and they are Scotland and England, so when you take that into account it’s unbelievable,” he argues. “Even countries like Greece, Italy and France have a close down in winter and we don’t so it’s something that we should be looking at.”
This winter’s large number of call-offs and unplayable pitches – Motherwell’s Fir Park being the worst offender – have provided him with extra ammo for his cause. However, the 12 SPL clubs dismissed the idea as unworkable, claiming it would cause fixture congestion every other season, because of World Cups or European Championships.
They have though left the door open to a break of several weeks every other season, when there is not an international tournament on the calendar.