Thursday, 12 April 2018

The Split Has Got to Go

The furore over the post-split fixtures, once an annual farrago, has returned with a vengeance this year and many are blaming Sevco.

No I bow to no one in my distaste for that club, but it must be said, the issue over the fixtures is not their fault. The fault rather lies with the system itself, which is an affront to the very principle on which a league season should be based – that every club plays an identical set of fixtures.

The whole point of having a league competition is to establish which team is best over the course of the season. No one disputes that in a cup competition the winners may have benefited from a large slice of luck in winning it. A favourable draw, rivals being knocked out in earlier rounds, a fortuitous bounce of the ball; it’s all part of the drama of the cup. But that’s not how a league season should be decided. League winners should be indisputably the best team over the course of the season. Every placing should reflect that – second should have shown over the season that they were better than third, third better than fourth etc.

The gap between first and second has for most of this century been substantial and it has usually been Celtic. After the introduction of the split in 2000/01, the now defunct Rangers won the title four times and their biggest winning margin was 6 points, while Celtic’s winning margins most seasons was in double figures. In a season with a very tight margin of victory, it can reasonably be said that the Championship may have gone to another time were it not for the vagaries of the split giving the champions a third home match against particular opponents.

That won’t be the case this season, but with a three-way fight for second place, “Rangers” have undoubtedly been handed an advantage over Aberdeen and Hibernian with a third home match against two of the other top six sides.

I’ll reiterate, this is *not* Sevco’s fault. It’s the system. A system that sacrifices the principle that every team should play an identical set of fixtures for a money-driven one that every team should be guaranteed 19 home matches, even if that means their nearest rivals having to play them away from home three times over the course of the season.

The split as it stands makes it impossible for every team to play an identical set of fixtures. Even if the 19 home game guarantee was scrapped, some teams will still have played more difficult away matches than others.

Something very simple needs to happen. The split needs to go.

Simple enough to decide upon, but it would lead to some difficult decisions to be made regarding the size of the league. The clubs were determined that the top flight should be made up of more than 10 clubs, which used to give us a 36 match season.

The split was introduced because the clubs decided that a 44 match season was too much. It enables a 12 team top flight, but only a 38 match season.

My solution would be to expand the top flight to 16 clubs, giving a 30 match season. With everyone playing each other once home and away, that means 15 home matches for everyone. I would also reintroduce the group stages of the League Cup, giving everyone a guaranteed 36 games, with a guaranteed 18 home matches. The groups could be seeded to have as far as possible a team from each division in every group. This would mean six lucky teams outside the top flight having a home match v either Celtic or “Rangers,” spreading the wealth around.

The common objections to this would be that there are not enough “decent” teams in Scotland to support such a large top flight, and that there would be too many meaningless games. Meaningless in that there will be a sizeable group of clubs in the middle of the league under no threat of relegation and with no chance of troubling the business end, and too many matches that are foregone conclusions.

My answer to that is that that could actually be a *good* thing for the game in Scotland.

Since the creation of a top ten in 1975, the top-flight in Scotland has been a cut-throat league. Probably less than half the league is not in a fight for survival, and clubs in mid-table know that a couple of bad results could see them mired in a dog-fight to avoid relegation.

This is not good for the development of players. Clubs can’t afford to take chances on young players. They can’t afford to try out new formations or ideas. They have to fight for every point and that means playing it safe against each other and parking the bus when they play Celtic or one of the Rangers clubs.

At the top end of the table, before the liquidation of Rangers, the imperative for the top two was to win every game. One slip up could cost you the title. So the same thing applied to Celtic and the former Rangers – few opportunities to blood young players, every game an absolute pressure-cooker.

Maybe a bigger top-flight with more “meaningless” games would actually be a good thing. With an 18 team top flight until 1974, we had Celtic win the European Cup and the now defunct Rangers the now defunct European Cup Winners Cup. Scottish teams continued to do reasonably well in Europe till the late 80’s, with Aberdeen winning the ECWC in 1983 and Dundee Utd reaching the UEFA Cup final in 1987.

Looking at those Aberdeen and Dundee Utd sides, is it any coincidence that so many of their most influential players emerged as youngsters on the cusp of the introduction of the ten-team Premier Division? Willie Miller, Gordon Strachan, Doug Rougvie, Paul Hegarty, David Narey, Paul Sturrock, all made their debuts in the 2-3 years before the Premier Division began.

Is it any coincidence that just as that cohort reached the end of their playing days that Scotland suddenly stopped producing teams capable of progressing in Europe? Sure we’ve had the odd exception like Celtic’s UEFA Cup final appearance in 2003 and Rangers’ in 2008, but those were done through massive, unsustainable spending. Celtic went through years of self-imposed austerity even before Seville, while Rangers went bust.

A sixteen team top-flight with a League Cup group stages would guarantee every team 18 home matches per season and I would argue would facilitate better development of young players. Teams at the top of the league would have more matches where they would feel able to try out younger players against opposition who have little chance of beating them, while mid-table teams would not have the fear of relegation that prevents them from doing so too.

This won’t be to everyone’s liking, but the present system has late us down. There are many reasons why Scotland has stopped producing players in the numbers it once did, I don’t think for a minute the small top-flight is the only reason for it, but it must be a major contributing factor. We’ve all known the reserve team wunderkind who is touted as the next big thing, who gets at most a handful of opportunities then drifts down the divisions. They get so few opportunities to impress, usually against seasoned pros fighting for their survival in the top division, and if they don’t produce the goods right away they are written off.

But my main objection to the current set up is that it is not fair. It doesn’t give every team an identical set of fixtures and this year, that will have a huge impact on 2nd-4th place. That’s not Sevco’s fault. It’s not even a system set up to benefit “Rangers.” It’s just a stupid way to organise a league.

Whatever happens, the split has got to go.