Desmond Kane

Money for old rope

Desmond Kane

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Blasts from the past can be discovered at various outposts these days. Flicking through the pages of The Times last weekend proved to be a worthwhile experience for those hankering after remnants of yesteryear. An interview with David Owen - now of course, Lord Owen - caught the eye, and made for compelling reading.

Owen is a politician who was once derided by the former Labour chancellor Denis Healey as "Mrs Thatcher in a trouser suit" during Owen's days as leader of the Social Democratic Party in the 1980s.

Speaking with some candour, Owen, once a Labour MP, fended off accusations that he had natural leanings towards the Conservative Party.

"It's partly to do with being Welsh," commented Owen. "My father used to say that nobody in our family votes Tory without a stiff drink, before and afterwards."

In the court of sports politics, similar sentiments could be attributed to the Scottish Premier League and its best-laid plans for a 10-team structure. None of the SPL's 12 member clubs should vote for a new league of 10 without a stiff drink, before and afterwards.

There is time yet for them to escape this fankle, even if it seems they are inexorably linked to 10 after a parish meeting of the church at Hampden Park on Monday gave "broad support" to a higher league of 10 with 12 clubs below stairs in a fresh arrangement. 

Without sounding melodramatic, there is no change in voting for a league that was deemed unworkable when it was thrown out a decade ago.

Supporters do not seem to have much of an appetite for such a change. Several SPL clubs, including Hearts, Dundee United, Inverness and Kilmarnock, are struggling to fathom the reasons behind the concept. 

As always in a sport that cut the umbilical cord between itself and the man in the street some time ago, the paying public has little say on what goes on behind closed doors.

If the name of the game is encouraging the development of younger players, enhancing standards and trying to entice fans back to a league that is apparently shrouded by dwindling attendances, reverting to what did not work before does not seem to be a wise business model.

There are a few other ways to take your new SPL, namely with 14 or 16 teams. The naked truth is that the SPL is reverting to 10 at the behest of television companies, and the carrot of cash they dangle in front of a posse of famished chief executives.

Making decisions solely based on the offer of filthy lucre never made anything in life right, but that is not to say the SPL are sleepwalking into such a change. 

There was no air of insouciance as Neil Doncaster, the league's chief executive, spoke about where the SPL should be going in the immediate term to end a period of malnourishment, especially in the ravaged lower leagues who would be handed a 44-game calendar from a constitution of 12.

"We have to acknowledge that the popular vote is for a larger league, but you can't ask the question in isolation," he said. "If you put it to them (the clubs) that your club will lose at least £1m, due to loss of TV revenue and fewer fixtures, then it doesn't look very attractive."

At the heart of some brisk discussions, so urgent that Doncaster apparently flew to Lithuania to give Hearts owner Vladimir Romanov the big sell on the merit of 10, is what would be appealing to keeping broadcasters, namely Sky and ESPN - since Setanta went the same way as the Dodo - interested in purchasing the brand.

Football sold its soul to television a long time ago, even if it did stop just short of bowing to the hosts' request to play matches at the 1994 World Cup in America in four quarters.

A move to 16 teams would be unappealing to broadcasters and advertisers with too many meaningless games to stomach between clubs that are of little interest outside of Scotland. The league of 10 could be as unattractive considering the amount of pressure that will apply to more than half of the league.

Interest in reviving Scotland's reputation as one of the great cradles of football goes out of the window if a league of 10 comes in. The vexed issue of the country's national side is also at stake somewhere among all of this. Of course, this is revisiting old ground.

Will more untested younger players be blooded when there is more pressure on clubs to remain a part of what they voted for? 10 seems to be as claustrophobic as 16 is flabby.

Doncaster claims the new set-up will be of greater benefit to those relegated from the highest echelon. There are plans to spread the wealth around other financially hamstrung clubs in the lower leagues.

Play-offs to decide the promotion and relegation issues will be wheeled in to give the league more drama. A winter break would be restored. It could all be installed for the start of the 2012/13 season. It all sounds plausible, but is nothing new. In every sense, this whole scheme is old hat, money for old rope. 

If one takes Rangers and Celtic out of the equation, eight sides must try to ensure they do not get caught up in relegation aspects.

When one considers this is a domestic championship that no side outwith Celtic and Rangers has lifted since Alex Ferguson ran Aberdeen in 1984, it is something of a minor miracle that clubs such as Aberdeen and Hearts continue to draw over 15,000 fans to home matches when they start each season aiming for third place. 

It has been suggested that Old Firm fans are tired of fodder turning up in Glasgow every week to lose by three or four goals, but smaller clubs are hardly going to progress if they are denied access to the VIP lounge. The Old Firm are not bound for the English Premier League any time soon. They can either be part of the problem, or part of the solution.

There is much of a muchness about a lot of the clubs in Scotland. Partick Thistle, Morton, Falkirk, Raith Rovers and Dunfermline Athletic are hardly smaller entities than Kilmarnock, Inverness, Hamilton, Motherwell or St Mirren.

If TV had its way, Celtic and Rangers would probably play every week in a world series of Scottish football for 38 games, and be done with the rest.

To this onlooker, 14 would seem ripe to be given a shot, but supply and demand of television dictates the ideals of the Scottish game. If there cannot be 14, there should be no sudden dash to escape the 12 in play at the moment. Modifications could still be made to assist those less fortunate.

The Inverness manager Terry Butcher views returning to a 10-team league as a retrograde step. "If you're looking at reconstruction, you're not looking at deconstruction," said Butcher after his side's 1-0 loss to Rangers last night. "Deconstruction's a 10-team league - it's going back to the dinosaur era."

Having worked under Delia Smith at Norwich City for several seasons as the English club's chief executive, one imagines Neil Doncaster is used to stews. He does not want too many cooks to spoil the broth. The Scotland manager Craig Levein shares that viewpoint, but there are no guarantees this will pay off through the gates.

The return to an SPL of 10 is as risky as Levein's decision to play 4-6-0 in Prague last October. The general thinking seems to be that it might work, but there is no plan B if supporters continue to shun the sport.

The Scottish Premier League will vote to opt for 10, or remain at 12. They will either go over the top together, or remain stuck in the trenches.

In another extract from his recent musings, David Owen said: "I'm not a tribal politician, but I am an emotional politician. I do believe in moorings, because then you can withstand the buffeting of typhoons that rage."

In this choppy financial climate for football, will this new SPL have moorings? Will Scottish football and its brave 'new' era of 10 teams withstand the buffeting of the typhoons that rage?

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