Scottish football often suffers from ‘statement-itis’, but yesterday’s board update from Partick Thistle struck exactly the right note. With SPFL clubs being asked to cast indicative (rather than binding) votes on the current 14-10-10-10 proposal within the next 24 hours, Jags chair Jacqui Low urged fellow clubs to “do no harm”.
It goes without saying that the events of the last 3 months have been unprecedented, and Scottish football is in a position it could never have imagined possible, let alone prepared for. There is no precedent for resolving the 2019/20 season, and there can be no perfect solution which brings this to a neat and painless conclusion. But the principle of “do no harm” is something to aspire to, and one which the current proposal comes closest to achieving despite its flaws.
Any club being relegated faces the consequences that would come with dropping down a division in normal times, but also an additional financial hit from scenarios ranging from restricted attendances, no crowds at all, or even no football at all for an extended period of time. Much of the attention has been on these clubs facing the drop, but less has been said about those clubs who have missed out on promotion – the impact of not going up is no less significant, and will bring with it long-term pain. Around 30% of Scottish clubs – those sitting in 2nd to 6th position of the Championship, League One and League Two when the season ended in early March – will be feeling just as aggrieved as Hearts, Partick Thistle and Stranraer about their chances of promotion being snatched away from them. Those who invested heavily to put a title-challenging team together will have made a significant loss this season for no return, and will need to commit funds again next season for another promotion push.
The current proposal takes relegation off the table for 3 clubs, and would reward 3 more with promotion for their efforts this season. It would also bring two ambitious and serious contenders into League Two from the Highland and Lowland leagues – and most importantly would not leave a ticking time bomb on the table for those unfortunate enough to struggle in two years’ time. However we feel strongly, and have heard from many fans around the country who feel the same, that the underlying problem is the financial imbalance in Scottish football. In a country with four small divisions clubs will naturally move between divisions more frequently than they do elsewhere, and the catastrophic consequences that relegation brings – not just in times of crisis but every single season – are unacceptable. The deep cuts that clubs have to make, as a simple result of finishing in tenth or twelfth place, damage the livelihood of players, managers, coaches and all other staff working at our clubs. They mean that the quality of football that we watch as fans suffers. They mean that player development, which takes years of nurturing, is seen as a short term target for cost savings – destroying the dreams of talented youngsters and cutting off the flow of future stars. They mean that community development programmes, which in many places around our country provide vital services to a society ravaged by austerity, wither on the vine. This is about more than the prospects of two or three clubs, this decision affects the whole of our national game and everyone it touches.
The previous reconstruction proposals were for temporary change, which we consistently criticised as merely kicking the can down the road, and pushing the financial impact of relegation onto other clubs a couple of seasons down the line. We hope that Partick Thistle’s appeal for clubs to think wider and deeper before voting is heard, and that Scottish football can finally come together to act in the best interests of the game as a whole. We then need to hope that the penny drops, and we finally find a new way forward for Scottish football that breaks our clubs out of the mode of short-term self-preservation once and for all.