SPL/SFL Merger: Progress at last or a gamble we can’t afford?

By Johnny Connelly

At long, long last, a majority of SPL and SFL clubs have come to an agreement on the future structure of our domestic leagues. In a wrangle that felt equally as long-winded as the Rangers v HMRC tax debacle, a breakthrough was reached as 23 clubs voted in favour of new plans that’ll see the creation of a single governing body (the SPFL).

Audible sighs of relief (as opposed to the expected hubbub of optimism) rippled through the Scottish football community when this deal was reached. The big black cloud that loomed over our game’s future has been cleared from our skies at least temporarily, as we can now look forward a new exciting format that boasts financial redistribution, as well as the reintroduction of playoffs.

As much as I’m pleased to see the end of this, I can’t help but think back to the massive overhaul in structure that the fans and the clubs cried out for. The new, 12-10-10-10 structure just doesn’t match up to these demands in my eyes. If we look initially at the SPL and SFL Division 1 clubs, as far as I can see (playoffs aside) all that’ll change is the distribution of wealth amongst them.


When two become one – The SPL and SFL will be replaced by the SPFL


I see this as something of a gamble, although I do understand the strategy. Make some of the top placed teams in the SPL suffer financially in the short term, so as to financially boost the bottom placed clubs in the SPL and the rest of the SFL initially, and create a more holistically-centric, financially viable league structure in Scotland in the long-run.

The logic is sound, but we must hold our hands up and admit that it is a gamble of sorts. This process would be the golden ticket to revamping our game domestically if all the current SPL clubs were financially bloated, but we all know this isn’t the case. From a moral and idealistic standpoint, throwing money at the 1st Division clubs is without a doubt the right thing to do. It shows that the powers that be are thinking about the game’s success in the long term; but to disregard the threat this scheme poses to the top SPL clubs is foolish.

Here is how the money is expected to be redistributed throughout the current SPL and SFL Division 1 clubs:

1: £2,405,514 (13.39%, -£314,487)
2: £1,717,454 (9.56%, -£682,546)
3: £1,460,555 (8.13%, -£59,446)
4: £1,288,629 (7.17%, -£71,371)
5: £1,202,757 (6.7%, -£77,243)
6: £1,116,884 (6.22%, -£83,116)
7: £1,056,701 (5.88%, -£63,299)
8: £1,005,142 (5.6%, -£34,858)
9: £987,895(5.5%,+£27,895)
10: £902,023 (5.02%, +£22,023)
11: £816,150 (4.54%, +£16,150)
12: £730,277 (4.07%, +£10,277)

First Division

1: £386,248 (2.15%, +£318,248)
2: £343,132 (1.91%, +£276,132)
3: £300,016 (1.67%, +£234,016)
4: £256,900 (1.43%, +£191,900)
5: £240,731 (1.34%, +£176,731)
6: £188,633 (1.05%, +£126,633)
7: £172,464 (0.96%, +£111,464)
8: £154,499 (0.86%, +£94,499)
9: £138,331 (0.77%, +£79,331)
10: £120,366 (0.67%, +£63,366)

This looks good in theory. If we take only the top two Divisions into account, we see that 8 clubs will suffer initially, while the remaining 14 benefit substantially. The 2nd and 3rd Divisions tell a similar story, with some smaller clubs standing to make an additional £46,000 a year, while any decrease of revenue for clubs can be as little as £80.

However, the likes of Motherwell punch above their weight, on a shoe string, with a threadbare squad. Every penny counts for them, yet if this structure was in place last season, despite them miraculously finishing 2nd Scotland’s elite division, the Lanarkshire club would be £682,546 worse off. This, although nothing compared to the money that the giants of European football are throwing around, is still significant when we put it in context that it would almost double the losses made by the club, bringing them up to a combined loss of over £1.2m for the season.

This year’s 3rd and 4th placed clubs would be dealt a similar hand, although not quite as severe. St Johnstone would have been almost £60,000 worse off for the year, and Inverness Caledonian Thistle too would be down by over £71,000. Again, these figures mean nothing without context, but when you see that St Johnstone have made six-figure sum losses in three of the last four seasons, that £60,000 becomes a sum of money that’s not to be scoffed at. Terry Butcher’s Inverness Caledonian Thistle too run on a shoe-string budget, but this projected loss of £71,000 represents around 18% of the club’s current overall debt.

On the other side of the coin, how can we be sure that the right clubs are benefitting if all we’re going on is their final league position over a season? Take Queen of the South for example. This season they cruised through the Scottish Second Division, thanks to a larger budget amongst other things. Under this new structure, the team in the 2nd Division that claimed the title thanks to greater financial muscle, would further be enhanced by a winnings pot of £102,401 (an increase of over £46,000 on the previous year).

I suppose we’ll never know how this’ll pan out until we stop speculating, and let it run for a few seasons. One thing that we all seem fully behind though is the revamp and reintroduction of playoffs across all of our divisions. Playoffs guarantee that the season has a focus and purpose, regardless of how far apart the clubs may be points-wise. A final showpiece and crescendo to the season is ensured, which should hopefully dispel the apathy that’s been creeping in over the past few seasons.

This season the SPL has been crying out for a playoff setup. Celtic won the league at a canter; and Dundee went down without a whimper. The whole league was a dead duck by Christmas. At least with playoffs, we’ll have something to get excited about right until the end of the season as teams will have something to play for right until the very last kick, and in all divisions too. The closest thing we had to excitement outside the SPL this season was the Ramsdens Cup final. What a great example of how to achieve excitement in football in a simple way. 10,000 people crammed in to Almondvale for the final, and thousands more watched live on BBC Alba. This proves beyond doubt that although we may not have the quality of the Premiership at our disposal, the route to success for our game in this country lies with generating excitement. Structuring the game correctly is the key to this, and we’ve shown from the likes of the Ramsdens Cup, that excitement trumps quality any day of the week.

My personal preference would have been for a bigger league, and the fans voted in their numbers for this. The fact is that we must bend over backwards to get bums on seats in football grounds all over Scotland. When you achieve that, the desired TV deals could well have followed, as we’d have injected the excitement back into the game that drew crowds, and would spur interest from further afield. Who’s to say this won’t happen in the future, but for now I’m happy that a cohesive approval from our top clubs will drive a united front for our domestic game to succeed. The formation of the SPFL could signal the start of a journey towards a prosperous league setup in Scotland, but if it’s to succeed, we must back it unwaveringly. It must be adjusted accordingly to generate as much revenue and excitement as possible, or we could find ourselves in the midst of another moribund spell of ‘reconstruction talks’ again before too long.


Is the penny finally dropping for Ally?

McCoist looks as though he’s learned lessons from last year’s flops

The long suffering Rangers fans of the modern era will no doubt continue to have their club dragged through the dirt in the coming season as more and more details of the Craig Whyte & Charles Green cavalcade of misdemeanors and skulduggery come to the fore. Sadly these club issues will wrangle on, but the last few weeks have had a silver lining of sorts on the actual football side of things, as Ally McCoist has made some impressive signings straight off the bat since the controversial transfer embargo has been partially lifted.

Rangers Manager Ally McCoist
Stern of face – McCoist has his work cut out for him

The past and continued involvement of Charles Green and Craig Whyte is a matter for the courts, and is well out of the fans and McCoist’s hands, but it would appear that there are signs of life as the manager has wasted no time in pressing on with strengthening his squad for life in Division 2, with one eye clearly on shaping a team that could compete in Division 1 and the SPL.

Gers fans haven’t had much to smile about over the last few years, broadly speaking, but the latest 4 players to join Rangers should bring a smile to even the grumpiest of supporters.  Although Rangers cruised to the Scottish 3rd Division title, even the most devoted of fans grew weary of the performances (or lack of) being put in by some of last season’s signings. A distinct shift in signing policy was required; and it looks as though it’s being delivered.

The likes of Fran Sandaza and Ian Black were never going to be wise choices to slot into a Rangers side facing a gruesome fight in the Scottish 3rd Division – for very different reasons of course. Sandaza, although a gifted goal scorer, has never been the most energetic player. His lethargic style of play led to him being a divisive character at Dundee United, and generally unpopular during his short spell at Brighton. There’s no doubt that he can stick them away when given a decent supply; but when be faced with a muddy park, playing against hard-nosed joiners and labourers who’d like nothing better than to put you on your backside, his effectiveness soon diminishes.

Ian Black too has struggled to win over the Ibrox faithful. He succeeds where Sandaza fails in terms of endeavour, but his blatant lack of ability and over-reliance on a style of play that borders on thuggery leaves him well short in terms of credentials to hold down a place in the Rangers midfield.  Of course there have been glimpses of promise from the likes of Dean Shiels and David Templeton, but the overall style and standard of signing has been lacking from a long-term perspective.

McCoist has wasted no time in securing the services of 3 top SPL players and a 40-goal striker from Queen of the South. Jon Daly, Nicky Law, and Cammy Bell have been joined by Nicky Clark as Rangers look to take the 2nd Division by storm.

Jon Daly is no spring chicken at 30 years of age, but with a goal tally of 58 from 167 appearances for Dundee United available on a free transfer, McCoist would be a fool to turn him down. Again in stark difference to Sandaza, Daly can throw his weight about and isn’t afraid to mix it up when it comes to tackling hard. His vast experience in England’s lower divisions while playing with Stockport, Bury, Grimsby, and Hartlepool will be drawn upon again as this same grit and determination will be required to guide Rangers up through the divisions here in Scotland.

Cammy Bell was something of a surprise when you consider Rangers already have a quality keeper in Neil Alexander. Ongoing contract debates with Alexander, and a propensity to concede goals due to lapses in concentration last season have clearly lead his manager to look for alternatives. In Scotland’s lowest division, Alexander managed just 12 clean sheets in matches where Rangers picked up all 3 points. Cammy Bell has his best years ahead of him at just 26 years of age, and could easily hold on to the no.1 jersey when Rangers eventually return to the SPL. His impressive performances over the last 7 years for Killie even led to peripheral inclusion in the Scotland setup. Bell will be around for a while at Rangers if he plays his cards right, but will come under the same scrutiny as Alexander if he fails to hit the ground running.

The acquirement of Nicky Law’s signature caught everyone off guard. Law was at the heart of the Motherwell midfield this season as they punched above their weight to finish 2nd in the SPL.  He’s attracted attention from the Championship, and reports even linked him with SPL Champions Celtic, so a move to the Scottish 2nd Division, albeit with Rangers, was a surprise to everyone. At just 25, he too could remain as a first team pick for McCoist when the club get back to the big-time. He’s shown himself to be strong in the tackle, but with a decent engine to go box to box, and with the ability to split defences with a clever pass. Law has cut his teeth in England’s lower divisions, having spent time with Sheffield United, Yeovil, Bradford, and Rotherham. He’ll be one to watch for Rangers this season and beyond, if his performances last season were anything to go by.

Away from the SPL, Queen of the South striker Nicky Clark also joined the ranks at Ibrox this week. McCoist shattered the delusion that Rangers would simply be cherry picking players from the SPL, as he opted for Clark who shone in the 2nd Division and Ramsdens Cup last year. He rattled in 40 goals last season, and knows only too well the pressures of playing for Rangers if he’s been listening to his father, Sandy Clark. It’s fair to say he’s not proved himself at the highest level, but finding the net 40 times in a season at just 21-years of age makes him a hot prospect for the future. It’ll be interesting to see if he can replicate or better his tally this season, given the increase in pressure brought on by playing for a bigger club.

Given the way the last 3 years have gone, we know that there’ll be more twists and turns to come in this seemingly never-ending saga of ownership, debt, EBTs, title deeds, liquidation, and every other sensationalised story that’s landed at the gates of Ibrox in recent times, but credit must be given to McCoist on this occasion for competently dealing with the task at hand – strengthening his squad. The road back to the big-time for Rangers will be a long and arduous one, and if success is to be achieved, then McCoist will need to deliver the right type of performance from the right type of signing. The real pressure starts now, and his latest signings will be expected to explode into action next season.

Is McCoist running out of time in the Ibrox dugout?

This whole notion of Ally McCoist’s managerial ability being cast into question is being reported by the mainstream media as though it’s a new phenomenon. I ask you, have these cynics been living under a rock since the former Question of Sport panelist took over at Rangers?

True enough, the Ibrox club have been a shambles in the early part of this season, what with embarrassing draws against Peterhead and Berwick Rangers in the first month of their unprecedented new campaign in Division 3. But the team’s capitulation under McCoist throughout last season could have been enough to remove him from the hot-seat.

The Gers held a commanding lead in the league, only for cracks to emerge, giving a resurgent and blood-hungry Celtic side the impetus to go on and claim the title.

With the vast majority of his top players still pulling on the Rangers jersey, McCoist’s men succumbed to 3 SPL defeats and a draw in quick succession:

  • Losing 1-0 at home to Killie
  • Losing 2-1 at home to Hearts
  • Losing 2-1 to Dundee United at Tannadice
  • and a 0-0 draw with Motherwell at Ibrox

These results aren’t those of a team challenging for a title, and I’m sure alarm bells would have been ringing if the club and the Scottish media in general hadn’t been engulfed by the financial issues surrounding the club.

Ally McCoist
The pressure mounts – McCoist has a tough job on his hands

McCoist’s failings didn’t just start towards the end of last season. Rangers’ Scottish Cup participation ended when a hungrier Dundee United side rose to the occasion to claim a 2-0 victory. The League Cup also eluded McCoist’s men at an embarrassingly early stage in the season, thanks to a plucky Falkirk side managed by former Rangers player, Steven Pressley. The Bairns stunned McCoist’s men as early as September in a five-goal thriller. Yet for some reason, it was put down to a minor blip.

These errors and poor performances had damaging effects on Rangers, in terms of morale and of course revenue, but McCoist’s card was marked earlier still, in a shambolic European campaign that lasted all of two fixtures.

If ever there was a season where Rangers needed a run in Europe, it was last season. The club were on the brink of financially instigated oblivion. The fans knew it, McCoist knew it, the players knew it, and the board knew it. Despite this, the manager failed to inspire his players to overcome mediocre Swedish outfit Malmo, losing out 2-1 on aggregate, and losing any hope of the estimated £15m windfall that comes with Champions League football.

Yes, the Malmo result was bad, but what was to ensue next bordered on laughable. Minnows NK Maribor were all that stood between Rangers and a slot in the Europa League Group Stages. We all know what happened next

Some of the more defiant and stubborn pockets of the Rangers support would have you believe that McCoist’s troubles came as a result of Craig Whyte’s reluctance to release funds for players. While this was partly true, McCoist DID have money to spend, the fact is, he simply spent in poorly.

Last season’s signings:

  • Juan Ortiz – £500,000 from Almeria
  • Lee Wallace – £1,500,000 from Hearts
  • Alejandro Bedoya – Undisclosed from Orebro
  • Carlos Bocanegra – Undisclosed from St Etienne
  • Matt McKay – Undisclosed from Brisbane Lions
  • Mervan Celik – Free transfer from GAIS
  • Dorin Goian – Undisclosed from Palermo

Of those 7, how many would you give pass marks to? Goian and Bocanegra certainly. Lee Wallace, perhaps. But the remaining 4 were without question, poor choices by McCoist.

So, does his signing policy instill confidence in the Ibrox faithful this year? Espeically Given that these guys will need to be the men who guide Rangers back to the big time?

Ian Black, Fran Sandaza, Kevin Kyle and Dean Shiels should be a cut above their current opposition, and we know little of Anestis Argyriou. None of the SPL signings have shown the skills that would lead you to believe they usually ply their trade 3 divisions higher than they are currently being asked to.

As much as it’s admirable for McCoist to stand by the club he loves, even when he knew it was a sinking ship, his catalogue of errors, poor decisions, and general tactical ineptness would lead any Gers fan to worry.

Had it not been for the financial troubles, the Craig Whyte (remember him?) debacle, and the Rangers tax case media circus, McCoist would long have been out a job.

A hard-nosed journeyman like Kenny Shiels, Billy Davies, or Terry Butcher was the appointment required to steady the ship in these choppy waters.

If Rangers have learned nothing else over these past few years, it’s that their club is a business, and a results driven business at that.

Gone are the days when the club could make a sentimental appointment like McCoist. Whoever took over from Walter Smith was going to have a huge task on their hands, and it’s starting to look as though this job is too big for McCoist. His endeavors in a Rangers shirt have no bearing on his ability as a manager.

I have no doubt that Rangers will win the 3rd Division title this year, but McCoist will make it a harder chore than it should be. His pool of resources dwarfs all of the other Third Division clubs’, even when added together.

The time for taking risks is over, but it leaves Charles Green with an unenviable dilemma to resolve.

Getting rid of McCoist would all but destroy the rapport he’s worked so hard to build with the support, but would allow Rangers to appoint someone who’s fit for purpose. Someone who’d utilise the resources at his disposal, and make the shrewd (sometimes unpopular) decisions that’d see Rangers ascend back up through the divisions in a prompt fashion.

Keeping McCoist, and giving him the short term vote of confidence would further adhere him to the Ibrox faithful in a way that Craig Whyte could only dream of. It would however jeopardise the future of the club, given that a convoluted route back to the SPL in the long term could plunge Rangers back into the financial difficulty that landed them in the Scottish Third Division in the first place.

The route back for Rangers will be a long and arduous one, and to my mind, McCoist will be more of a hinderance than a help along the way.

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