The Summer of Discontent: SPL in Crisis?

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Ibrox Stadium: There will be no top flight football here for this year, or next, or the one after that, but for how long?
Ibrox Stadium: There will be no top flight football here for this year, or next, or the one after that, but for how long?

This summer has been one of the most sensational off-seasons that the Scottish footballing community has ever experienced. Scottish football fans have been through almost every emotion conceivable.

Usually we are reduced to watching endless repeats on Sky Sports News of Jim White trying to get excited over Celtic’s 1-1 draw with Racing Shangai, and Hibs selling off their entire first eleven to pay for Sir Tom Farmer’s latest finance package. This year, the controversy of Rangers’ humiliating demise has dominated headlines north and south of the border. We have spoken to sources all over Scotland to try and establish the then, the now, and the what-if of the saga that is Scottish football.

The Scottish Premier League currently operates on a split system whereby with 5 games left in the season, the league is split into to halves of 6 teams, who play each other once again. This essentially means that a top 6 side could have expected two ‘big money’ home games against each of the Old Firm sides a season, with the idea being to manufacture a 38-game season in a 12-team league (!). Every year, this structure is challenged, criticised, rehashed, and then the SPL decide that it’s all too much trouble, much to the chagrin of the supporters.

We spoke to Michael Grant of The Herald. He admits that “leading any of the football authorities in Scotland is a thankless task. The default setting of the media and supporters towards them is suspicion, criticism and mild-to-severe hostility. Whoever takes the job knows they will never be truly popular.”

Many clubs have clashed with these authorities over the years, Heart of Midlothian being one of them. Former chairman, Lord Foulkes “is now never surprised by the SFA, SPL and SFL. [Vladimir] Romanov [current Hearts owner]…understandably now feels vindicated on his questioning of the impartiality of the Scottish Football hierarchy. Hearts (and Hibs) supporters have railed about West Coast bias for years – not just the football authorities and the ‘Old Firm’, but the media. Romanov amplifies this in his unique fashion but it has been shown to be true.” Vladimir Romanov’s outburst can be viewed in full on The Saint website. Suffice to say, it’s pretty damning.

The Rangers collapse and banishment to the Third Division brought all this bad feeling and frustration to a head. Leading contributor to the popular fanzine The Rangers Standard, Alisdair McKillop, is naturally disappointed at the role he has found his club cast in. The issue of race and sectarianism within the context of the Old Firm rivalry has often been at the centre of previous controversies involving Rangers FC, but in this case, it wasn’t part of the issue.

“The only criteria for being a Rangers fan is supporting the team in blue on the pitch at Ibrox.” For McKillop, “it will actually be a relief to escape from the clutches of the Old Firm game. These occasions were being suffocated by media and political attention. Perspective was lost in the rush to moralise about the negative aspects of the encounters and it felt like the rivalry was being blamed for issues that were actually rooted in society and history.”

Michael Grant feels that the league is teetering on the edge. “Without the Old Firm games there might be a little more focus on other major fixtures, such as the Edinburgh and Dundee derbies. The main difficulty the media will have will be to maintain interest if Celtic run away with the league early in the new year. I find a two-horse race endlessly depressing in Scottish football but at least the tit-for-tat element of Celtic and Rangers going for the title generates endless stories.”

It is not just the drop in media coverage which might worry other SPL clubs. The large away gates which the two Glasgow clubs bring are a more-than-useful cash injection for some of the smaller clubs, and a visit by Rangers is usually worthy of Sky Sports, and the inherent financial of their presence.

Barry Richmond is the chairman of the Kilmarnock Supporters’ Trust; he put a positive spin on things. “In recent seasons the numbers of travelling fans from Glasgow has fallen away, and the ‘Armageddon’ never came about with the TV which was only reduced by 10%, from which if we get a more commensurate share things are not as bad as they have been p ortrayed.”

When Rangers’ application to rejoin the league was rejected by a vote of SPL clubs, Kilmarnock’s chairman was the only man to abstain. Why? Richmond states “my own feeling is that he was totally hedging his bets and trying to keep Rangers fans onside so they would not boycott Rugby Park. “ Chairman Michael Johnston is clearly not a popular man in Kilmarnock, and is seen as part of the problem not the solution to the rotten state of Scottish football. “He’s got his SPL Board position he wanted, maybe if he makes the next progression to an SFA blazer he’ll be happy to go.” The supporters appear to mistrust the club; “many Killie fans who felt they were being treated as stupid.” The idea of ‘sporting integrity’, a buzz word throughout the ‘crisis’, seems almost non-existant. Michael Grant told us that in fact, the integrity of the league has been strengthened by the treatment of Rangers, and that had their application to re-enter the SPL succeeded, “the league’s credibility could never have recovered, it would have faced constant, relentless criticism.” Going forward, this metamorphosis might reinvigorate an apathetic footballing audience. Lord Foulkes is still passionate about the game, despite living, in his own words, in a “rugby-dominated” city. “Football is a very powerful force in Scottish life as I find when people want to talk to me about Hearts and not about politics.”

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