The Beautiful(ish) Game


A few years ago now, I was invited to speak to the pundits on BBC Radio Sportsound; it was in the aftermath of Craig Levein returning as Hearts manager after the departure of Ian Cathro. Asked if I thought that the Hearts faithful would get behind the appointment, I replied that trying to get consensus among Hearts fans was akin to attempting to herd cats.

The fact that my statement elicited a knowing chortle from Tom English and Michael Stewart tells you all you need to know… and that’s just one club’s fans.

When you start talking potential league reconstruction scenarios, the chance of herding more than two felines at a time flies right out the window.

Yesterday morning, I did a relatively quick and dirty re-jig of the Scottish football league system. The reason for doing it the way I did was very simple, I wanted to attempt to find a way to avoid relegating clubs that could have escaped the drop had all thirty eight league games gone ahead.

The simplest way to do that is to expand the current SPFL Premiership to fourteen teams. To do that, of course, would mean promoting two sides from the Championship. That gave rise to more un-herdable cats than you might think. Since I was increasing the size of the Premiership to fourteen, it then made sense to say “Let’s go all in!” and simply divide all forty two of Scotland’s current professional sides into three equal leagues of fourteen teams.

It’s not ideal; in fact it’s only elegant to the point that there’s an equal amount of teams in each league. The problems with it come in the form of “number of games”. In a fourteen team league, I foresaw a scenario where each team played each other twice, the league would then split into top seven and bottom seven, where those teams would play each other another two times, giving us the grand total of thirty eight games played.

The biggest problem with this scenario, of course, is that two teams (one top half, one bottom) would have nobody to play as each round of the post-split fixtures took place. No biggie, in the grand scheme of things, after all the major northern hemisphere rugby competition managed to do things that way for seventy three years before Italy was invited in to make up the numbers.

How did I go about splitting the sides into those three leagues? Well, I simply looked at the current four Scottish league tables, assumed those positions as though they were placed in one forty two team league, and split them into three groups of fourteen.

I then posted a graphic of how those leagues would look… and that’s when the cats got REALLY restless.

“Oh aye!” said some, “Typical Jambo, making sure HIS side don’t get relegated!” Believe it or not, that wasn’t really my intention; if it were up to me, I’d have relegated us round about Christmas time. We have been rank rotten all term, we deserve it.

But then again, generally when leagues get expanded, there tends to be no relegation from that league, only promotion into it.

So, okay, say we do relegate Hearts (and Partick Thistle and Stranraer), what then? Promote Dundee to the Premiership? While that makes, in terms of looking at that forty two team structure, what about Ayr United?

Ayr currently sit in that final Championship/Premiership playoff spot so, if you are going to automatically promote Inverness and Dundee without a playoff system, how do you go about soothing the wounds of the Honest Men?

And the same continues all the way down the leagues?

What about Clyde? As one gentleman, rather aggressively, put to me on Twitter, they could/would look at being in the bottom tier of any new league system as a demotion, even although they would still be in the third tier.

And then… what about Brora Rangers and Kelty Hearts in the Highland and Lowland leagues? Who’s to say that they shouldn’t get promoted into the pro ranks? After all, their leagues have said they have won those titles… shouldn’t they get the chance to replace Brechin City?

If one thing is clear about how Scottish football will move forward in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, it’s that there will be no easy answer.

This was my suggestion. I thought it was simple… it turned out to be anything but. But if anybody (especially the “leaders” of our game) can come up with a better solution, I’m all ears.



Comments (6)

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  1. Me Bungo Pony says:

    There are as many possible league formats as there are people pondering them (or is it just me). I would reconstruct the league on principle; covid crisis or not. I’m just sad that way.

    But taking your scenario and all the brick-bats thrown at it, rejigging it a bit further into a 16-12-16 format would lower the potential game count AND allow both Brora and Kelty into the league. It would also “promote” ALL the teams in the play off spots in the Championship and League 1 (not to mention EVERY team in League 2).

    Not that the above will ever be considered. The SPFL will come up with some ridiculously diddy format that owes more to money (not unreasonably given the circumstances) than sporting fairness and symmetry (a bit of personal OCD there).

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      My thoughts about reconstruction – which I think is overdue, Covid-19 or not – ended up settling on the same set up as Mr Young’s with Ayr rather than Caley getting the nod. The 7/7 split does, indeed, leave one team ‘free’ each match day, but all teams will have this. It is not an insuperable problem, because, the ‘play-off mini-leagues’ can play home and away fixtures, as a fair league ought to and, if the split in the main leagues comes after two rounds of fixtures (26 matches), the Play-off mini -leagues give a further 12 matches giving a total of 38 matches, which is the same as the current premiership has, but two – more than the other three divisions have, although currently, teams in play-offs have at least two extra matches. So, there is roughly the same number of matches as before, but every team has an equal number of home and away fixtures.

      I am a Partick Thistle supporter.

      Three divisions of 16 would admit two teams from each of the Highland and Lowland Leagues and, with two rounds of fixture plus an 8/8 split, we have every team playing 37 matches, although half have one more home match than the others.

      I could go with a 3×16 set up. We should also grasp the nettle and adopt a pyramid system so that teams below the third ‘national’ division can automatically gain promotion, with the two bottom teams in the third division being relegated automatically.

      1. Me Bungo Pony says:

        This is just a copy and paste from a post I recently put on a thread on this site. If we’re posting our preferred league structures, I thought I might as well give mine another airing 🙂

        League Format:
        A top flight of a maximum 20 teams (at least 16 though) split into two regional divisions (East and West) of 10 much like the MLS in the USA. The Premiership would be decided by a play-off system as most truly competitive tournaments are. I would personally prefer the top flight to be a stand alone affair with the rest of the current SPFL teams forming/strengthening Senior leagues below this level such as the Highland and Lowland leagues. They could, however, form regional divisions below the top flight with either automatic promotion and relegation or an old time “election” system that existed pre WW1 that would require criteria to be met (such as stadium, turnover, fan base).

        Games Played:
        To determine the number of games to be played against each opponent, the two regional divisions would be divided into two “local” pools. For example, in the East Division, I would have (others WILL disagree) ICT, Aberdeen, Dundee Utd, Dundee and St Johnstone in one pool and Raith Rovers, Dunfermline, Hearts, Hibernian and Livingstone in the other. Teams would play against the teams in their local pool 3 times, the teams in the other pool twice and the 10 teams in the West Division once. This gives a total of 32 games which is not a bad number, especially as it would leave time for the play-offs to be contested. It could be increased to 37 (which is the current number) by playing teams in one of the other regional division’s “local” pools twice. The asymmetry of each team’s fixture list is essential to prevent the ability to just tot up the points to see who is the best at the end of the “regular” season, no matter what Regional Division they are in, thus bringing the validity of the play-offs into question.

        Once the “regular” season has been completed, the top four in each Division would contest the Play-offs. My personal preference is a system based on that used by the “Aussie rules” AFL. It uses “Qualification” and “Elimination” games that favour the higher ranked teams to determine progress. In the case I am making, it would look like this;

        Elimination Round 1: 3rd East at home to 4th West and 3rd West at home to 4th East. Winner progresses to Elimination Round 2. Loser is eliminated.

        Qualification Round 1: 1st East at home to 2nd West and 1st West at home to 2nd East. Winner progresses to semi-final. Loser progresses to Elimination Round 2.

        Elimination Round 2: Losers of QR1 at home to winners of ER1. Winners progress to semi-final. Losers are eliminated.

        Semi-Final: Winners of QR1 at home to winners of ER2.

        Final: Hampden Park (other venues are available).

        ALL league sponsorship, advertising revenues and broadcasting revenues to be split equally between all teams regardless of whether they finished last or Premiers. Away teams to receive a share of the gate money. The first is a no-brainer if you want to create at least the illusion of a more competitive league. If the team that wins is given far more money than the teams that finish last then the “attainment gap” is only going to get bigger. This ties in with my second point. Teams that win will get bigger crowds (by and large), and subsequently more money, while teams that lose will get ever smaller ones. By “redistributing” the wealth a little, the competitiveness of the league can only be enhanced. Given the prevalence of Season Tickets it would be necessary to create a “tariff” per head to determine what the away team is due. For example, if we decide that away teams are due 10% of the “gate money” and that each spectator is “worth” £20, then a gate of 10,000 would mean the away team is due £20,000.

        Old Firm fans will likely hate this because, inevitably, it would reduce their revenue and probably see them win fewer Premierships. However, would it not make the many they would still win just that little more special with much of the inevitability of them removed? Fans of the teams that didn’t make the cut for my preferred “closed shop” option would also not be keen on it. But, given that those teams have barely tickled the higher echelons of the SPFL in nigh on 100 years of competition, would they not rather contest a League they could conceivably win? The top teams in each of these Senior leagues could also contest a Scottish Senior Championship via a play-off system such as I outlined above. I realise this is just blue-sky dreaming, never going to happen and just a little irrelevant given the crisis surrounding us right now …. but it is at least distracting me from it all temporarily.

        Ah well …. back to the doom and gloom. Thanks for the opportunity to put my thoughts out there 

        PS For clarities sake, my choices for the West Division would be Falkirk, Hamilton, Motherwell, Celtic and Partick Thistle/Rangers, Morton, St Mirren, Kilmarnock and QOS (others WILL disagree).

  2. Kevin Hattie says:

    I remember hearing about a North Atlantic league some years back on a fans’ forum. Obviously this isn’t being seriously considered at the moment, but having countries like Scotland, Holland, Belgium and the Scandinavian nations pulling together isn’t a bad idea. I imagine the audience for such a league would bring in a lot of money via sponsorship, television deals etc. There would be a lot of issues to sort out, especially choosing the teams to play in the most lucrative division, but perhaps international leagues will be something common in the future. European football is dominated by a small handful of nations at present. I think something needs to change to help those leagues that are being left behind financially. There are a lot of formerly big clubs wasting away in their domestic leagues, failing to make an impact on the grander stages these days: Anderlecht; Red Star Belgrade; Steaua Bucharest; Dynamo Kiev; Sparta Praha; Austria Vienna, to name a few.

    1. Me Bungo Pony says:

      They appear to be pretty much moving towards a kind of European League. Were UEFA (or some such) not mooting using the Europa League as a bridge between the National Leagues and the Champion’s League?

  3. Keith says:

    Where are Brora Rangers or Kelty Hearts? Denied the chance to have a play off v Brechin ? We have a pyramid system, expanding next season to 68 West former Junior clubs, but while 42 is neat it denies the new structure involving Highland, Lowland League and the feeder leagues below, like EOSL…. the 14/10/10/10 idea remains the most likely to keep the promotion not blocked at existing 42….

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