In Defence of the Top 12 – Why We Shouldn’t Do Away With The Dozen.

It is hard to imagine those in charge of the Scottish Professional Football League doing anything right on purpose. But is that exactly what happened when the current league format was adopted? With sudden and unexpected reconstruction now on the agenda given the current public health crisis, the 12 team league is under threat. But should it be?

I’ll put my cards on the table up front – I like the split. I like the 12 team league. It has been in place for almost 20 years – a long, long run for a league format in Scotland. In the past we’ve had bigger top flights – and also run with just 10 teams. I don’t think anybody is realistically advocating reducing the league at this stage, but it seems inevitable that a proposal will come forward this summer to expand the Premiership for to 2020/21 season.

Why is that a bad thing? Surely adding to the variety of clubs in the top league is a good thing. Who wouldn’t want a Premiership trip to Ayr, Arbroath, Greenock, Dumfries or somewhere else you only get a chance to see via the luck of the draw in a cup competition, or if you go down?

The main arguments against the current Premiership are a lack of diversity – ie playing each team three or four times – and general complaints about the split format.

The latter is the easiest to dispatch. Any revised format is going to have a split in it, and any revised format is going to result in a split that is even less equitable than the current
format.

A 16 team league would only have 30 games with each team playing each other twice in a basic league format. No team is going to want to ditch four home games a year – that’s 20% of their gate revenue. Broadcasters won’t accept the loss of 50% of their favourite product – the big derby matches that sell subscriptions.

Somerset Park, Ayr – undoubtedly a great away day

So a split would be inevitable – presumably play everybody twice then split 8/8 and play a further seven games for a total of 37. The inevitable first issue? Every single team will have a home/away disparity regardless of what happens. And you’ve only dropped one match against each team.

A 14 team league realistically means splitting after 26 games – just beyond the half way mark of the season. You’d then either play two rounds of fixtures in a 7/7 split for 38 games total, or split the league into a top 6/bottom 8, meaning top and bottom halves play different numbers of games.

Again, there are big issues. First off, that is surely far too early to split the league. Look at Saints this season – after 26 games we were just scrapping our way out of the bottom reaches of the league. After 33 – the current split point – we could have been in the top half.

You also almost guarantee that the team who finishes top of the bottom half will have far, far more points than the team(s) at the bottom end of the top half – another perennial complaint of the split cynics.

The big issue, for me, that nobody addresses in these scenarios is this. Why is it better to expand the mid-table of the Scottish Premiership – effectively introducing a part of the league with nothing to play for – rather than play an additional game against each team in a league that is more likely to have something riding on it? Let me expand…

The diversity of teams issue is best addressed with a 16 team league. You’d play three against the teams in your half of the league and twice against those in the other half. You lose one game a season against every side. In a 14 team league you would play the teams in your half four times – the same as you do just now. You’d only play the teams in the other half twice.

It seems unlikely that either 14 or 16 team leagues will have more than two relegation places. The number of European slots will remain four for next season.

So in a 14 team league, with an early split, it seems almost inevitable that there will be a chunk of teams in the middle who, very early in the season, have nothing left to play for. The teams who are well clear of the relegation zone after 26 games will play two more rounds against inferior teams – but can’t propel themselves upwards.

The teams at the bottom half of the top group are in a similar position. They are likely to be miles off the European pace – possibly even in a slide that would get them near the bottom spots (see Hibs’ most recent relegation season), but would be safe from that early in the New Year. They’d have 14 remaining games, all against teams fighting for the title/Europe, with no opportunity of picking up points against the lesser lights and no prospect of a prize at the end of it.

So where’s the motivation for fans of the clubs in that middle bracket to turn up? They have nothing to play for. If their local rivals are in the opposite half of the table they’ve lost two local derbies out of the fixture list.

In a 16 team league all you do is flesh out the mid-table even further – more teams would be in there further away from the danger zone/European spots. I read an interesting post on a forum the other day about attendances in the 60s/70s when larger leagues were in operation. They fluctuated wildly from one week to the next – primarily because little was riding on many of the games.

Yes, you don’t have to play Kilmarnock or Hamilton or [name your least favourite] club here four times a season. Maybe it’s only three. But your additional games against Dunfermline or Ayr or whoever are effectively going to have absolutely nothing to them.

So what of the current 12-10-10-10 set up. How does it help stoke excitement?

Well, for a start, the current split format has cut down on the number of times you have to play each team from the 4×9 set up in the old ten team setup. It isn’t ideal – but the other benefits make it worthwhile.

With the playoffs there are currently six league positions in the Premiership, Championship and League One that you might call “meaningful” – they carry either a championship title, a European spot (assuming the Scottish Cup is won by a team in the top three), a promotion or relegation playoff or an automatic drop.

The Premiership as it stands – and will likely finish.

The current Premiership table shows you how the format encourages competition and meaningful matches. Saints, having had such an awful start, have played their way into a position where if they won their game in hand they’d be in sixth, six points off fourth and potential European qualification.

Kilmarnock, currently eighth, need to improve their form over the (theoretical) final eight games to avoid the playoffs. Every team from ninth to 12th could finish in the bottom spot. That fight would likely run right down to the wire.

At the top end Celtic are runaway leaders – though Rangers will undoubtedly argue that they could claw it back to just four points if they won their game in hand and the two remaining Old Firm derbies.

Motherwell and Aberdeen are neck and neck for third – but one or both could still fall from the European spots.

Dropping down the leagues, Dundee United are running away with the Championship, and Inverness are almost assured of a playoff spot. But with eight to ten games left (there’s a bit to catch up on in the second tier!) only five points separates third and seventh. The remaining three, Partick Thistle, Queen of the South and Alloa would in normal circumstances be going into an exciting run in of head to head matches, with all three potentially facing automatic relegation or a playoff spot.

In League One Falkirk and Raith Rovers are barely separated, with Airdrie, Montrose and East Fife tightly contesting the remaining playoff places. Dumbarton and Clyde are the only sides in the top three tiers with nothing to play for at this stage – with big gaps between those sides and the playoffs at either end, while Peterhead and Forfar are in a tight fight to avoid the relegation playoff.

With that picture down the divisions – with only TWO of 32 teams having little to play for after 80% of the season – why alter the format on spurious grounds of “making it more interesting”? Why is it more interesting to play three games against Ayr United (as much as I love Somerset Park) in a 14 or 16 team league – but with 12 games a season having nothing riding on them – than to play an extra game against half of the teams in the 12 team format, with only a few dead rubbers right at the end of the season?

You also get into a scenario where an expanded top league system reduces the chances of the “bigger” teams going down to virtually zero. There are a finite number of full-time clubs in Scotland. The bigger the league the more likely it is that the clubs going down and coming up are just the same names recycled each year.

Right now five teams in the Championship have recent histories of playing top-flight football, with Falkirk in League One also a relatively recent Premiership side. No other team in the league system has played Premier Division/League/Premiership football since (I think!) Airdrieonians and Raith Rovers were relegated in the early to mid 1990s.

Is it not better to have a system where there is a danger to teams like Hibs, Hearts, Dundee United, Dundee etc? Not only is it self-evidently hilarious for fans of small teams like our own to see these teams fail miserably, but if your worst case scenario – brought on by the league structure – is to finish just above the relegation places, how does that help Scottish football?

It doesn’t make sense, to me at least. And that’s before we get in to the dilution of the TV money and potential drops in attendance if more games are rendered meaningless. And maybe it’s just me, but I go to football to watch my team, St Johnstone, regardless of the opposition. As much as I enjoy a bit of variety, I appreciate that the 12 team structure, with the split, and the playoffs in the leagues below brings an element of competition not only to the top tier but throughout the structure.

I hope the current situation isn’t leveraged to make a change that there was little real clamour for just a few weeks ago. Especially if it is simply a device to keep a “big” team up – despite their abject failure over the past 18 months plus.

Hearts are bottom of the league, they stand to be relegated if the season can’t restart, and they don’t much like that. That is absolutely understandable. Nobody is going to vote themselves down a division, nobody would expect them to take it lightly.

However, it is a breathtaking piece of hypocrisy for their owner, Ann Budge, to now advocate for expanding the top tier – a move that will inevitably involve expanding the SPFL ranks as a whole to accommodate it – given her comments just a few short years ago.

In an article published on August 7 2016 on the BBC website [https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/36999758], she said: “I think 42 senior clubs is too many for Scotland. You’re looking at about half that number.

“We’re not throwing people to the dogs and saying you don’t matter. We should be saying this is what will work better for you, what fits your profile.”

She doesn’t believe in a bigger professional setup in Scotland. She appears to believe 20-22 professional teams in Scotland is enough. That would imply a top flight of 10-12 and a second tier of a similar number. She will now produce a plan that proposes – temporarily, to rescue Hearts and for no other clear benefit – a 14 or 16 team Premiership.

Let’s not allow the demands of one team overrule something that is, objectively, working for Scottish football. This would be change for the sake of change – and not for the overall benefit of the game.

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