Andrew D Duffy
For The Good Of Scottish (Lower League) Football
Updated: Oct 1, 2020
The Reconstruction Rabble And What Comes Next, Through A Lower League Lens.
It cannot be often that Scottish Football is linked with Doctor Who.
Sure, now and then someone might reach for a cheap and easy laugh by drawing comparisons between football grounds of a certain vintage and a trip back in time, or even by drawing parallels between fans of the Two Cheeks and the screeching, repetitive histrionics of the Daleks, given their mutual outrage at the audacity of anyone who dares challenge their god-given right to utter domination.
By and large, though, these two worlds rarely meet.
And yet, when reflecting upon the recently botched attempts to reconstruct the leagues on a permanent basis in response to the temporary disruption imposed by the Covid-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdown, I found myself reflecting on the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary special, The Day Of The Doctor.
In that story from 2015, shape-shifting Aliens called Zygons have assumed human form and replaced key members of the security force called UNIT. They are locked in a confrontation with their human counterparts that seems certain to spiral into war before The Doctor, by means of Science Fiction jiggery pokery, manages to make everyone involved forget if they are human or Zygon.
The key to a truly equitable negotiated settlement, the character argues, is none of the participants knowing which side they are on.
One wonders, then, how the reconstruction efforts might have gone had the not-so-great and not-so-good of Scottish Football been manipulated into forgetting which club they represented and how much skin they had in the game.
Listen to the supporters of Stranraer, Partick Thistle or especially Hearts and you'd be forgiven for thinking the consequences of the leagues not being reconstructed dwarfs those of a war for the very Planet itself, and by a significant margin to boot. You'd get a similar impression from most of the pundits on shows like Sportsound and in particular BBC Scotland's Football-Writer-In Chief, Tom English, who has suffered a bit of a 'heids gone' moment over the whole affair and seems to be under a blood-oath to admonish Neil Doncaster, the largely powerless buffer between the media/fans/sponsors and the real power-brokers of the Scottish game, the top flight clubs.
Make no mistake, it is very unfair on the three relegated sides who have found themselves unable to play their way out of the automatic relegation spots they found themselves in when the matches were initially paused. That they have been unlucky is to understate matters, and to be sympathetic to their misfortune is only natural.
Yet contrary to many claims, the change to the leagues that was eventually proposed by the SPFL, 14-10-10-10, was not perfect and would in and of itself have had negative knock on effects for multiple clubs.
This is not the greatest footballing injustice seen in sport. It's not even close. The reality appears to be that many clubs were open to attempts to redress the balance, if it met certain criteria, both for themselves and the game as a whole, and so long as it did not run contrary to their own needs. No reconstruction proposal managed to do that.
Why? Because permanent reconstruction isn't something to be cobbled together over the course of weeks. It's also not something likely to breeze through at a time of great uncertainty when clubs across the divisions are primarily focused on keeping the wolves from the door. Indeed, even though things like the voting system, boardroom intransigence and a love of the status quo have been pilloried as the reason that no change will ever come and nothing different will ever happen, it isn't that long ago that things did change and that something different did happen.
We have the playoffs. Not only did the top flight clubs accept the playoff for the 11th placed side, but the members of this 'private members club' installed a potential trap door that has seen two of the clubs dropped out of the senior set up altogether and allowed Edinburgh City and Cove Rangers to take their place.
This change to the status quo was implemented in the summer of 2013 when the SPL and the SFL merged and is proof that, in the right conditions, with considered handling, turkeys can indeed be convinced to put their X in the box marked 'Christmas'.
This time, conditions obviously were not right for much risk taking, so the handling was always going to be even more crucial. To say Hearts et al mishandled the reconstruction effort is to be Christlike in one's kindness. Lower League clubs and their fans remember all too well Ann Budge's assertion that there are too many clubs in Scotland and the clear implication that half the sides, the smaller sides, should do their bit for the good of the game and fuck off to the juniors, or just plain fuck off altogether.
With that in mind, as well as the pressing urgency for Hearts to get some change over the line, you'd think they'd have done the running, the heavy lifting, on trying to garner support. Instead, multiple clubs have confirmed that Hearts never even bothered lifting the phone to them. No overtures made, no conciliatory steps taken, no special efforts to seem like a listening club who now realised the error of prior remarks. How else is one to read an assumption that clubs with little to gain would stand behind the Hearts banner simply because they said so in media interviews and press releases, other than as a display of remarkable arrogance?
Hearts took a hard sell and then promptly failed to sell it. They appear barely even to have tried. Groundswells don't happen of their own volition.
They weren't helped by a bewilderingly tone deaf move by the top flight clubs to declare, prior to the conclusions of a 'Reconstruction group' being presented, that they weren't interested in reconstruction. Nor were they helped by a souring of relationships stemming from the Good Friday vote and Dundee's vote doing the spam folder hokey cokey.
The reality is, though, that no matter what decision was made even at the pausing in fixtures, there were going to be winners and losers, pros and cons, advantages and disadvantages, ups and, pardon the pun, downs.
Null and voiding the league would have seen Celtic, Dundee United, Raith Rovers and Cove Rangers rending their garments in a meltdown all their own. It would have had potential knock on effects for the SPFL relationship with the league sponsors and broadcast partners, and would almost certainly have led to a furore as big, if not even bigger, than we have now. Take Dutch football as a case in point; when they announced there would be no champions and no promotions, well... Suffice to say it did not go down well.
Deciding to try and finish the leagues whenever that became possible would have had complications of its own, with potential damage to the new and increased TV deal. Besides, the leagues are not all able to restart at the same time due to the cost implications of Covid-19 testing, meaning we would have had a staggered conclusion to the leagues. That would have been preposterous. At best, the only 'conclude the league' option would have been to finish the lower leagues as they did and then let the premier division play out the final fixtures. Not only would that be unfair on the lower leagues and cost the top flight that aforementioned broadcast deal in some manner or fashion, but it would have resulted in Partick Thistle and Stranraer still trying to fight injustice. One wonders how much assistance Hearts would have offered them had they played out their premier league games and managed to avoid a bottom placed finish.
Ultimately, the board put it to the clubs and the clubs, eventually, chose to end the leagues, admittedly at the recommendation of the board, but then they have proven with their rejection of the board's 14-10-10-10 proposal not to be entirely beholden to suggestions from that body.
Once the clubs voted to give the Board the power to curtail the leagues, the premiership clubs unanimously consented to the ending of the division on the 18th May, on the basis that they accepted the league could not be played to completion.
From a lower League perspective, of course, whomever was going to end up finishing as club 42 has been spared a playoff for their very SPFL status against either Brora Rangers or Kelty Hearts.
This has betrayed a worrying tendency towards false equivalence amongst much of the Scottish Football media, many of whom suggested it was unfair that Brechin did not suffer the same fate as Hearts, Partick Thistle and Stranraer... Despite the fact that Brechin did not finish in an automatic relegation spot but rather a playoff spot. Playoffs, right across the board, have been dropped this season. That is why Hamilton, Queen Of The South and Forfar are relieved that they did not have to face relegation. It is why Inverness Caley Thistle, Dundee, Ayr United, Falkirk, Airdrieonians, Montrose, Edinburgh City, Elgin City and Cowdenbeath have missed out on a chance to play their way into a higher league.
One is sympathetic to the argument that the 42nd spot should be an automatic relegation spot, which would have allowed Kelty and Brora to play a one off behind closed doors decider, in a neutral venue, for the right to replace relegated Brechin, but those have never been the rules and it would have been surely unjust to spring that on the Glebe Park side.
As touched upon before on this site, Lower League sides now face a daunting task to get themselves back on a pitch at all. As argued in this article, the best thing the powers that be in Scottish Football could do for us is arrange a cascading down of the TV deal, to ensure our survival. Indeed, why isn't it a prerequisite for the SPFL to ensure a Television deal for the lower leagues, beyond one or two BBC Alba games? Would an extension of the deal which saw a few Championship games screened on the newly minted BBC Scotland channel not be just the ticket for these 'unprecedented' times? Don't both parties, The SPFL Board and the National Broadcaster, have a duty to pitch in for these clubs that don't have the Sky deal to lean on whilst fans are unable to attend matches?
In fact, why does the SPFL accept any broadcast deal at all that only covers the top flight? Aren't we one SPFL, post the 2013 merger?
At long last, some movement appears afoot for Leagues 1 and 2, following the vote in the Championship to get things up and running in October for a reduced season of 27 games. The twenty clubs which comprise the bottom two tiers have been asked to indicate their readiness and preferences by 26th June, a week tomorrow at time of writing.
They have apparently been given options of an August start as normal, matching the Championship with an October start, waiting even longer until December/January, or even 'Hibernating' altogether. A merger of the leagues will apparently be implemented if a significant number of clubs elect to go down the mothball route in what is the best indication yet that we might actually get some proper, genuine Scottish Fitba' back underway, as opposed to that silly, plastic Premiership stuff.
How our clubs will be able to bridge the funding gap when faced with testing costs, closed doors or at best limited capacity attendances, regardless of the generous but surface-scratching James Anderson donation, must now be the priority concern, rather than the legal wrangling and statement posturing from Hearts and Partick Thistle.
It does not feel like one has gone out on an overly exposed limb to suggest that the best these clubs will get is some enhanced compensation, rather than an order to postpone the relegations altogether, given the efforts the SPFL went to to try and get reconstruction implemented, or at least explored.
In fact, it seems a lot of the recent moves have been made with a particular eye on the crossing of legal T's and dotting of procedural I's. The SPFL can now assert that they set up a Reconstruction taskforce, liaised with clubs throughout, canvassed clubs for their issues with reconstruction in the first place, proposed reconstruction to all 42 clubs and asked for indicative votes with a view to calling an EGM, getting the Championship to confirm a start date to reassure Hearts that they are not being relegated to a division that does not exist and now doing just the same for Partick Thistle.
I mean, this can't be the first time they have checked in on the League 1 and 2 clubs, right?
In all likelihood they have had loads of discussions with the clubs about it and probably even have a good idea of what each club will say and which option is most likely to get the most support. They might actually know fine well what the likely start date will be as well as how many, if any, clubs will feel they have no option but to mothball. This, then, is the SPFL making it official, giving them a consultation deadline like they did with the 1st division (I hate calling it the Championship) and allows them to demonstrate their efforts to provide Thistle a league to play in. As such, it also maybe spikes Partick's guns in any legal wrangling to stop them having the 'we don't even know if or when we will be able to play in the league we have been relegated to!!' argument to lean on.
One expects, then, that the media, with no reconstruction to argue about and with the horrific Colt Proposal repelled for at least another year, will be bringing a new focus to bear on the barriers to the lower leagues kicking back off again, examining how we might best get around them and what the rest of Scottish Football, with their Sky deals and confirmed start dates, can do to help them out.
Yknow, for The Good Of Scottish Football.
Airdrie For The Cup. Whit Cup? Any Cup;