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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5 Responses to A Split Decision

  1. Some of your criticisms are valid, some not, and I think you’ve missed out a few.

    For simplicity I’ll refer to the 12-12-18 setup as divisions 1, 2 and 3, and the 8-8-8 post-split setup as divisions A, B and C.

    Most of the games in hand at present could have been played in midweeks already if the need was there, but you’re correct that very recent call-offs like County’s games would cause problems. It might be that the league would have to force games to be played elsewhere if there are postponements close to the split.

    I don’t think the point about the unfairness of Hearts losing their 14 point over Dundee holds water – if you know what the rules are before the start of the season you accept that in league B you start from scratch. (We don’t expect to carry points across from season to season now either – same thing.) Nor do I think the possibility that Dundee have nothing to play for after Boxing day is an issue – that’s a feature of the current setup too.

    My main worries are the number of meaningless games in Divisions A and C. In each case there are 14 games, but there may be nothing at all to play for for 3 or 4 teams at the bottom – there is no relegation from Div A. No matter how badly you do, you’ll be in Division 1 next year. Equally, there’s little excitement at the top half of Division C – if there’s a trophy to play for it’s pretty meaningless, because it doesn’t get you promoted. At the bottom of C there will be relegation to Div 3 – maybe 2 spots plus 1 playoff.

    Off the top of my head I’d like to see this option, though there may be lots of downfalls I haven’t thought of. At the end of the season:

    B1, B2 and B3 are automatically ‘promoted’ to Div 1
    B5, B6, B7 and B8 are automatically ‘relegated’ to Div 2.
    B4 and C1 have a one-game play off.
    The winner gets a one-game play-off against A8 for the last spot in Div 1.

    That would add a week and two games to the season, which should slot in around the cup final.

  2. Ayrshirebear72 says:

    See playing each other four times. It skews the league. Take Celtic v kilmarnock as a theoretical example. First game of season. Killie win 1-0 against Celtic at rugby park. They get the three points. Now under normal circumstances Celtic would be expected to beat kilmarnock so it’s safe to say they would expect to pick up two wins and a draw at least in other three games. Celtic therefor get 7-9 points. This renders kilmarnocks win useless to them as in head to head they will trail Celtic by 4-6 points. Celtic run away with league. Now consider if its a 20 team league with one home one away tie. Kilmarnock win first game of season 1-0 as above, Celtic can at best only tie with kilmarnock head to head. This makes kilmarnocks win a major thing. Steal a draw in the return gecxmd head to head lead Celtic by 3 points. Win and its 6. Lose and ur still level. Now repeat the scenario with every team in the league. I believe it will bring teams closer to the old firm and make the euro spots more competative. Does mean an initial lowering of overall standards in league but through time if expect this to improve as the current first division teams get used to playing against top teams. Another financial aid to the bottom division would be old firm colt teams playing in it. This would financially befit smaller teams and would benefit the old firm introducing youngsters.

    So in short. 2 leagues of 22 teams. With old firm colt teams being in division 2. Still introduce pyramid system to allow other teams a chance to enter league.

    No is time for change. Change it fully. No half baked attempts.

  3. Hans Eliezer says:

    why not just 3 divisions of 16 teams each with a month of winter break? I personally don’t like the seemingly-overcomplicated systems of breakaway leagues like that

  4. Graham McRoberts says:

    A 14 team set up with a 6/8 split is the most logical set up. It covers all the major issues and is the most attractive to fans and sponsors alike

  5. Ewan Mc says:

    I despair of Scottish football. Why can we not have a league where the teams play each other home and away. Promotion and relegation, with playoffs in the lower leaughe to gain access to the higher league. A pyramid system at the bottom, with regionalised leagues feeding into that.

    Why is this so hard? I would reverse the current proposal, have an 18 team top division, then 2 x 12, or even 1 x 24. This means 34 games in the top league, which seems reasonable, enough space for a winter break, time to start the season early to help European participants etc.

    If we have 24 teams which are now deemed good enough to contest a 12/12 top league system, then surely we can sustain an 18 team league.

    It looks to me that the only reason we are about to have this new 12/12/18 is to preserve 4 Rangers v Celtic games per season in the future (presumably for the TV money). Have we not moved past that, and proved that Scottish football is about more than these 2 teams, and that TV money is not the only motivating factor in Scottish Football? I can see no other reason for forcing an even crazier split than the one we already have upon the game.

    Look around Europe. Nearly all the countries that are ahead of Scotland in the coefficient tables (which is most of them) have a minimum 16 team league.
    Exceptions are Norway and Austria (possibly more). Does this not tell us something?

    You would think that the rest of the footballing world must be in a sorry state, given they all play in straightforward leagues, if the forces behind this crazy splitting league were to be believed. Someone should point out to them that it is our game that is in disarray, with our splitting league, insistence on teams playing each other 4 times, non World Cup/Euro qualification for 15 years and counting. Maybe it’s our system that’s wrong, not everybody else…

    I haven’t even bothered trying to dissect the many problems inherent in the 8-8-8 system. Austria tried it years ago, and they don’t have it any more. Has anyone asked them why they ditched it?

    I can only hope the fans revolt again, threaten to stop going if this farce goes through, and the clubs take notice. Otherwise I really fear for Scottish football.

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