A Split Decision

League reconstruction has been on the agenda for around two years now, and the latest proposal being given light of day is the SPL’s “12-12 to 8-8-8” plan, which was used in Austria between 1985 and 1993.  Under this proposal, teams would start off in two divisions of 12, and would play each other home and away for a total of 22 matches.  At this point, the leagues would split into three sections of 8, with the bottom four of the top flight joining the top four of the second tier.  Each of these sections would see teams playing each other home and away for a total of 14 matches, giving an overall seasonal total of 36 games.

This system would certainly provide more opportunity for clubs to be promoted to the top flight, with as many as four teams having the opportunity to gain promotion via the middle league section.  This form of split would also be guaranteed to be “even”, unlike the SPL’s current split which can sometimes lead to a team having 18 home games and 20 aways (or vice versa), and can also see a team playing a particular opponent once at home and thrice away (or vice versa).

But a quick look at the current SPL table exposes some major flaws in the proposal.  There have been 22 matchdays completed in this season’s SPL, the exact point at which the league would split into an 8-8-8.  Matchday 22 took place on Tuesday, but Ross County’s home match against Inverness was postponed due to a waterlogged pitch.  Ross County’s match against Hearts last weekend was also postponed for the same reason.  That leaves County with two games in hand, matches which could decide the final members of the “top 8” section – it is still possible for both County and Hearts to be in 8th place (or higher) after 22 matches are completed.  (There are a few other sides with games in hand, but these matches would all have gone ahead by now if the 8-8-8 split was in place.)

That immediately creates a problem for the league.  The second part of the season cannot go ahead until we know which sides are in which sections, so these matches would have to be played as a matter of urgency.  These matches would presumably be rescheduled during the winter break, negating the alleged advantages of having a break in the first place.  And what if the poor weather continued and County’s pitch remained unplayable for a couple of weeks?  The season could be thrown into disarray with the start of the next round of games delayed for a week or more, leading to a potential fixture pile-up.

While it is true that it is relatively rare for SPL matches to be called off, with Ross County’s recent travails being the exception rather than the rule, the same cannot be said for SFL1 clubs.  Remember that under the proposed system, the second tier clubs would also have to complete their first 22 games within the same timescale in order for the top four of the division to join the bottom four of the top flight.  Many second tier clubs do not have undersoil heating, and postponements over winter are fairly common.  Even in what has been a fairly mild winter this year, the likes of Cowdenbeath and Dumbarton have multiple home games off.  A quick glance at the table shows Livingston, Hamilton and Dumbarton having three games in hand over some of their rivals within the league. Last season, Queen of the South were the first team to complete 22 matches in the 1st Division – by that point every other club had games in hand (as many as three).

It is possible that the dates for the season could be tweaked slightly, but regardless of the scheduling, it is a certainty that the last few matches of the first section of the season will take place in the winter.  Even a well-timed winter break will not guarantee that every fixture will be played in time, and it is not practical to demand that second tier sides, some of which are part-time, have undersoil heating or any other expensive form of pitch protection.  Likewise, it is unclear what the SPL intend to do with their current rules relating to minimum capacities and all-seater stadiums – it would be ludicrous to demand these of every club in the second tier, but would be equally ludicrous to have a team involved in the middle section of the division if they could not be promoted.

While the actual scheduling of games provides the main practical difficulty of the new system, there are also a couple of other drawbacks.  A quick glance at the SPL table shows a gap of just nine points between 2nd placed Inverness Caley Thistle and 10th placed St Mirren.  Any of those clubs between 2nd and 10th could be considered to have a realistic chance of qualifying for Europe, and even Ross County, with their games in hand, cannot really be ruled out of the race.  The introduction of a split at this part of the season would condemn three of those clubs to a relegation battle at this relatively early part of the season.

Given that the “middle 8” will contain teams from two different divisions, it seems likely that every team would have to start again from scratch, with points gained in the first part of the season wiped out.  In this season’s SPL, 9th placed Hearts are currently 14 points ahead of bottom side Dundee in the SPL, while SFL1 leaders Dunfermline are already 12 points clear of 4th placed Falkirk after just 18 games.  It would seem incredibly unfair if those advantages were wiped out completely in future seasons, rendering their work in the first half of the season meaningless.

That also raises another issue – it would have been impossible for Dundee to reach the “top 8” since Boxing Day, while Dunfermline, Morton and Partick Thistle could potentially be guaranteed a place in that section with three games to spare.  Would as many supporters turn out for matches which were completely meaningless, and would the players go into the game with the same mindset as they would for a more important match?  These matches could still be important for their opponents, leading to a situation where these opponents have a possible advantage over their competitors.

The 12-12 to 8-8-8 plan has a few advantages over the current system, but it difficult to see how the SPL and SFL could deal with the practical issues I have outlined.  While most fans would like some form of league reconstruction over the next couple of years, it is important that the authorities do not rush into change for change’s sake.

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The SFA National Football Survey – A Review

A couple of months ago, the SFA released the “National Football Survey” in conjunction with the SPL, SFL and Supporters Direct, allowing fans their chance to have a say on the future of Scottish football.  These organisations should be commended for giving supporters this opportunity, but it remains to be seen whether they will take notice of what supporters are saying or whether they are just paying lip service to fans by making them feel involved.

None of the three governing bodies covered themselves in glory in the summer, and while self-interest is to be expected from the league bodies, the SFA failed in their duty to govern the game in the best interests of all clubs.  Stewart Regan’s predictions of social unrest were an embarrassment to both himself the association, but they also revealed a lot about how he views supporters in this country.  The lack of any sort of contrition from Regan since then makes me skeptical about how interested he really is in the opinion of those same fans.

This piece will look at the positive and negative aspects of the survey in terms of its content, layout and question style, and will also discuss the likely end result in terms of how the results will be presented by the SFA.  I have deliberately waited until after the survey was complete to release this piece, to avoid prejudicing any of the results.

The first thing to point out is that the survey was very long.  That was necessary in some ways given the depth of the topics which are being discussed, but it may also have put some people off answering all the way to the end.  The survey began with some basic demographic questions, which are useful in determining how responses vary across different age and sex groups and also across different areas of Scotland.  This also included a question about your current level of involvement in football, which is important because those who are currently involved in, say, grassroots football will have a greater idea of the current issues at that level.  It may also have been useful to have looked at past involvement at each level for the same reasons, but there was no question about this.

The first main section relates to the SFA.  The answering format for these questions is slightly odd – it asks the user to rank a number of issues in terms of importance, thus forcing someone to pick a “best” and “worst”.  This is not always logical – if I was forced to rank the Twilight films in order of preference, it wouldn’t mean that I actually liked the one I picked as “best”.   The concern is that people pick something as the “best of a bad bunch”, but this is presented in a way which suggests that this answer is in some way popular.

The same is true at the other end of the scale – if I was asked to rank the tracks from the album “Definitely Maybe” by Oasis in order, then even the song I picked as “worst” would still be one I liked (“Bring it on Down”, for anyone who’s interested).  This could lead to an important issue being trivialised purely because it was being compared to other, more important issues.  For example, the first question in this section asked people to rank “Better Facilities”, “Better Coaching”, “Increasing Grassroots Participation”, “Stronger Financial Regulation” and “Stronger Supporter Representation” in terms how they would help to improve the standard of Scottish football.  I’d imagine most people would consider ALL of these to be important, but some of them are going to be cast aside.

Incidentally, that question also had the slightly odd “Earlier season start (from late June/July)” option, which was completely out of place in relation to the other answers and would seem to have more to do with league reconstruction rather than improving the standard.  A different start date is unlikely to have any effect on the actual standard.  I am always suspicious when I see something like that in a survey – it often indicates that someone is looking to use it to manipulate the results.

This answering style doesn’t have any advantages over the more conventional method of picking an answer on a scale from 1-10 or “very good” to “very bad”.  If the conventional style was used, it would still be possible to see how any individual ranked various issues against each other by comparing their responses for each issue, but it would have the added advantage of also allowing you to see how important they considered the issue on an absoute scale, rather than just a relative one.  It seems unlikely that a large organisation like the SFA would not have someone with experience of survey design, which suggests that this answering style may have been deliberately chosen.  A few of the questions do use the more conventional style of answering – but these are mixed up amongst the ranking questions which could cause confusion.

This section also included a question about your preferred top flight size, allowing the user to choose from 10, 12, 14, 16, 18 and “more than 18”.  But as I discussed in this piece for STV, there is more to the league layout than just a number.  My idea of a 14 team league might be different from yours, but the survey doesn’t differentiate between these.  The responses likely to be inconclusive – the people who want a larger league will be split across the 14, 16, 18 and “more than 18” options.  This could leave the 10 team option as the most popular – anyone who wants a smaller league would select this option by default.  My concern would be that the SFA, who were previously in favour of a 10 team league as suggested in the McLeish report, could unscrupulously take advantage of that outcome by claiming that the biggest support was for the 10 team option.

There was a question about your preferred dates for the season, but this question was unnecessarily restrictive in its options.  The only options were “August to May”, “July to May with a 6 week break”, “March to Nov with a short summer break”, plus an “Other” option (without the opportunity to specify what you actually mean by “other”).  This question seems like a fudge which mixes three issues together (summer/winter football, mid-season break and start-finish dates).  It would be more informative to ask about each of these separately – the responses to this single question will not really provide any insight into people’s opinions on any of those issues.  My person preference is for the season to run from mid July to May, without a winter break, but I was not able to select that option.  Again, the cynic in me suggests that this was deliberate, with the SFA having previously sought to foist a winter break on us.

There was also an opportunity for people to discuss which organisations were most responsible for improving the standard of Scottish football (options being the SFA, SPL, SFL, clubs and the government), which is an important issue.  The idea of ranking the organisations makes slightly more sense in this case.  That was followed by another couple of important questions, asking whether you think the various national teams and Scottish clubs under or overachieve on the field and how important you consider certain responsibilities of the SFA.  There were also a few questions about your awareness of various SFA initiatives, which will allow the association to look at how well they are promoting these initiatives.

There was an important question about financial realities within the game, which will hopefully allow the SFA to introduce some form of financial regulations which would help reduce the number of clubs getting themselves into trouble.  The survey also asked people to choose how the SFA should prioritise spending on things like coaching, elite youth development and grass roots football, and also looked into what people felt the main responsibilities of the SFA actually are.  This is important for any organisation – they have to know what their “customers” expect of them.  The questions about the new Judicial Panel will also prove useful – it will allow them to see how the public have responded to the new disciplinary procedures.  Having a mandatory question asking people to rank the various governing boards of the SFA in order of influence is less useful – most people (myself included) won’t have a clue what each of the individual boards do, and they should have been allowed the opportunity to say so.

A concerning aspect was the line of questioning relating to the McLeish report.  The questions asked if you were aware of the McLeish report, and how much you felt the SFA had implemented the McLeish report since it was published, but did not allow you to give feedback on whether you agreed with recommendations of the report.  I said that I didn’t think the SFA had implemented much of the report, but was unable to tell them that I’m actually quite glad they haven’t.  While I haven’t read the whole report, a number of the excerpts which I read were poorly researched and suggested solutions which I didn’t agree with.  My worry is that they will claim that people didn’t think the McLeish report had been implemented enough, and will make steps to introduce more of it, regardless of its popularity.  The questions about “Scotland United: A 2020 Vision” (which I knew nothing of before the report), provide more opportunities to actually decide which parts of that publication you prefer.

A discussion of the reliability of the media is also important – we saw in the summer that certain media outlets are beginning to lose credibility while the advent of social media means that news is being dispersed more quickly than ever before.  The SFA has to ensure that it continues to reach football fans in the most effective way.  It is disappointing that when the SFA ask about interaction with supporters, they only allow an option of “engage with existing supporters groups” – they should be willing to engage with all supporters regardless of whether they are members of a supporters group.

The second section of the survey related to your experiences with your club.  After providing information about your favourite club and how regularly you attend matches, it asks why you support this club, which is of course useful in terms of the governing bodies understanding what makes fans tick.  It then had a number of questions allowing you to rate how important things like atmosphere, stewarding and travel options are in terms of your matchday enjoyment, and also how well you think clubs are doing on these issues which again is very useful to know.  There is a similar question asking how valued you feel as a supporter, which may well be an eye-opener for certain clubs (my own included).  Another very important question relates to what factors would discourage you from attending a match – though it is unlikely that clubs will be able to implement changes to all of them.  However, commonly discussed issues such as standing and alcohol at games are only mentioned in that single question – it would surely have made more sense to have separate questions about these to gauge the popularity of both issues.

One major oversight comes in the questions relating to who you attend matches with.  I generally attend home matches with my dad, grandfather and brother, but there is no option to select this (aside from “a group of male friends”).  Given the supposed focus on getting families along to games, it is very odd that this is not included.

The final questions relate to fan ownership of clubs and also board representation for supporters, which is something which I’d imagine the majority of people would be interested in at least discussing.  However, there is no further information included about what they feel “fan ownership” would consist of, or indeed how they would intend to help people to achieve this goal.  As always, the devil is in the detail, and no detail is provided.

The survey is flawed in terms of the amount of written feedback it allows.  The only opportunity people have to submit a text answer relates to what the SFA could do to improve transparency of its functions and responsibility.  They should have provided an opportunity for more general feedback – while this would take a while to collate and properly digest, it would be very useful in terms of the association becoming aware of areas where fans have concerns.

While I think it is positive that the governing bodies have released this survey, I remain skeptical about their motives for doing so.  I have previously discussed the ways in which surveys can be manipulated, and the layout of the survey makes it possible for the SFA/SPL/SFL to pick and choose how to interpret the responses to certain questions.  I believe that certain parts of the survey were designed to deliberately guide people towards certain answers, and a number of important issues (league structure, season start/finish dates, standing at matches) were not discussed in nearly enough detail.

As such, I am not convinced that the results released will genuinely reflect the views of the public on every issue.  That is not to say that the survey will not be useful – the questions about the judicial panel, financial regulation and matchday experience should provide important feedback to the SFA and clubs, and will hopefully allow them to implement changes where necessary.

My hope is that there will be transparency with results of this survey and that they will be used to spark a debate on various issues.  It would be wrong for the governing bodies to present a fait accompli and to claim that it was what the supporters wanted – doing so would create more suspicion of underhand behaviour.  I would urge the bodies to release the results of the survey in full when they have finished collating them, thus allowing people to draw their own conclusions.  A failure to do so would suggest that they have something to hide.