Saving Scottish Football
- 25 March 2013
Let me start by saying making a simple observation: league reconstruction, in my opinion, is not the most important part of revamping Scottish football. It’s a cosmetic solution to terminal problems.
For Scottish football to truly flourish, we need more drastic measures than simply juggling the numbers.
After Germany crashed out of Euro 2000 - picking up only one solitary point along the way - they implemented a wide-ranging strategy aimed at preventing similar disasters in future competitions. The first key point – presented by the German FA’s Youth Development Director after analysing the French FA’s Clairefontaine Academy – was the opening of 121 national talent centres across the country. Each of these centres was to employ two full-time coaches. The second key point was the requirement that every club in the Bundesliga had to build a youth academy.
The growth in off-field operations in German football – over the last five years in particular – has been staggering. Over a ten year period, the league has doubled its revenue and last season, it knocked the Premiership off its perch as the world’s most profitable league. Not only was the combined profit 55 million Euros after tax, but 14 of the league’s 18 teams posted a profit. When you consider that eight Bundesliga sides are currently playing in stadiums which were built post-2001, the figures are all the more impressive.
On-field success doesn’t require much explaining, but we’ll touch on it anyway. Two Champions League final appearances from the last three - after having previously failed to reach even a semi-final in any of the seven years since Leverkusen were beaten by Real Madrid at Hampden – show continued improvements are being made. At international youth level they boast one win, a runners-up and a fourth place finish at the U17 European Football Championship. These performances have coincided with a win at the U19 European Football Championship and two Third Place finishes at the U17 World Cup. They took their youngest squad in 76 years to the 2010 World Cup only to be denied by the brilliance of the once-in-a-lifetime Spanish squad at the semi-final stage.
I’m not suggesting that Scottish football could ever aspire to reach the levels of German football - at club or international level – but we should be looking to recreate what they’ve done at a scale relative to our size. Scottish football is not blessed with the same resources that German football has available to them – but we also only have a population about 1/15th the size. Following that train of thought, a simplistic view then, should dictate that for every 15 world class players in the German squad there should be at least 1 of equivalent skill level in Scotland, right? We all know that’s far from the case, and it may only be my opinion, but I reckon Germany could field three or four teams worth of players which would trump anything Scotland has to offer. So where are we going wrong? For me, it isn’t so much about what we are currently doing; it’s more about what we aren’t. As I’ve already demonstrated, with massive reconstruction at grassroots level in Germany, they’ve been able to dramatically improve at all levels in the sport. The simple answer then, is to copy what they’ve done and refine it to fit our smaller clubs. With that in mind, I propose an amalgamation of the two key points in the German plan; build national centres and use them as academies.
Basing everything on population and finance, Scotland should simply scale down the German model and roll it out to our sides. I fail to see why we can’t fund such a system. Would it mean short-term pain for most clubs? Almost certainly – personally though, I would happily accept two fewer £20k-per-week players if it was directly funding an extensive youth programme which would gradually improve the quality I viewed every week. With all clubs having to scale down accordingly, the downsizing would be even across the board – and be pretty fair on each club as a result.
If Germany has 121 national centres – a logical number in Scotland would therefore be 8. Rangers and Celtic already have world class facilities – we need all of the top sides in the country to have access to the same level of facilities and expertise. With promotion and relegation, it would be logistically impossible to provide each club their own individual centre – for that reason, youth football would have to be regionalised. (This would mean the SFA taking a hands-on approach to youth football – something that they’re already dipping their toes in the water with in their implementation of Performance Schools.)
To expand upon my previous point, any top-tier side which can’t build and fund their own state-of-the-art facility would have to send their players to be coached at the regional centre for their area. The likelihood is that this would mean, for example, Hearts and Hibs youngsters being taught at the same facility.
In Germany, they stipulate that every age group must have a minimum number of players eligible for the national side. In Germany it is 12 players from each intake – which seems like a perfectly logical plan to follow.
The SFA’s Performance Schools, which I previously touched on, are a miniature version of what’s necessary. For me, they are only skimming the surface – good, but not quite good enough. That’s where we need the Scottish government to step up and help with the required extra educational funding. We need them to turn each of these regional centres into fully-functioning schools, and work with football authorities to strike the correct balance between football and education. An alternative to this – and probably a more cost-effective one - would be to provide a corresponding Performance School in a nearby area for each of the regional centres. For the sides who decide to use their own facilities – Rangers and Celtic being the only likely candidates on that front – something closer to the latter is required; a nearby school to send all of the Club’s academy players to, which works on the same programme as the regional Performance Schools. I believe Celtic and Dundee Utd already have something resembling this setup.
In Germany, the clubs pay 2% of all ticket revenue and 3% of the league TV deal to the DFB for the upkeep of their grassroots programmes. This seems like a fair level to be imposed on all sides. On top of this, I suggest that a 5% minimum of each club’s revenue is earmarked for youth programmes. For clubs funding their own facility, how that is spent is down to them. For clubs using the regional facility, that 5% would contribute to the running costs of the regional centre and any other associated in-house costs i.e. scouting. Another stipulation I would make is that any side using the regional academy who sells a player trained at that facility, must put a percentage of that money back in the system. A conservative figure of 5% of everything above £500k would seem like a fair amount. Some would argue that having to hand back transfer money is not fair, but when you consider that every club in the top league will have contributed financially to the system which allowed you to develop this player – I think it’s the only fair method of doing things. Using the last sets of accounts with Rangers in the SPL; SPL clubs had a combined turnover of £163.8m. 5% of that figure would mean £8.19m being invested in youth development by the SPL clubs alone.
These ideas should all be underpinned by strict new financial rules. Our governing bodies should actually be governing. It would seem the Rangers situation has taught our governing bodies very little. But Rangers’ situation wasn’t the first – and isn’t even the most recent – financial disaster in Scottish football. As I write this article, Dunfermline continue to tumble towards complete oblivion, and all because the Club have unsustainable debts directly related to spending too much on wages for far too long. Another example - using the accounts of 2011/12 – is Hearts, who had a wage-to-turnover ratio of 116%. Staggering, isn’t it? It’s really no surprise that Hearts are also circling the drain when you consider mind-boggling statistics like that.
So what’s the solution? Well, under reconstruction the implementation of strict financial rules is necessary. I would propose that no club is allowed to spend more than 50% of their turnover on playing squad wages. This cap would also promote the idea of using the youth academy as a source of affordable players.
This idea takes me nicely on to my preferred league structure. I’ve already touched on the fact that I think league reconstruction is not the most important part of revamping our football, but it can enhance the league if we have the necessary building blocks which I previously referenced.
I would like to see two leagues of 16 playing each side home and away for a total of 30 league games. This league system would be supported by a regionalised pyramid system - which would incorporate the current Third Division, any Colts side which wished to take part and any and all Junior/Highland League sides which also wished to take part. People might suggest that there are not enough league games here, but we almost never achieve sell-out crowds as things are. Fairly basic economics would dictate that less of a product in the market should hopefully increase demand. The fact that each side only visits each other once per season would also hopefully create excitement and demand in itself. Further to this, any gaps in the schedule would be filled by a revamped League Cup system – which I’ll go into detail about later.
With fewer points up for grabs, it’s more conceivable that teams won’t run away with the league. There are fewer meaningless games, and hopefully this would also boost attendances. With each side guaranteed the same number of games against each other, this would increase the likelihood of certain sides fielding youth players. As things stand, teams seem so intent on making the top 6 that they would rather field a team full of Ross Tokely-type players than an exciting, but inexperienced, youngster. In England, teams like Wigan are completely comfortable battling at the bottom every year with young players – we need to provide an environment which doesn’t punish teams for doing this in Scotland.
And so to the aforementioned revamp of the League Cup. I would like to see the implementation of a group stage. Qualifying for this group stage would be the top two leagues of 16 – and 8 clubs from the pyramid system, determined by preliminary knockout format. This would see 40 teams split into 8 groups of 5 – all playing each other home and away – and guaranteeing another 8 games each season (38 guaranteed games in total).
I would like to see the group stage seeded, so that teams at the bottom of Division Two, and those lucky enough to qualify, are guaranteed a split-gate, home and away fixture with one of the top 8 sides in the country. This would see a continual redistribution of wealth every season, not dependent upon a TV deal. The implications for the larger sides in the country are that they would be agreeing to split their gate receipts for 4 of their home matches each season.
Lastly, I would rebrand the League Cup as the family cup and allow children under the age of 12 to go free to all group stage matches. This should be accompanied by reasonably priced adult tickets. The idea behind this is that you’re inspiring the next generation of season ticket holders - hopefully by means of entertainment, but also by getting them into the mindset of attending football regularly. It is currently far too expensive for your average working class family to take their kids to the football – this should be seen as an opportunity to change that.
This concludes my presentation of ideas – I hope you share, discuss and debate the merit of my ideas and perhaps present even better ones of your own. Despite the fact it may seem like we have no voice in this reconstruction – its ultimate success will be determined by us. Perhaps then, if more of us present ideas of our own, we can eventually get a structure and system we’ll all be happy watching.
Iain Nicol 23 year old accountancy student, Rangers shareholder and gets along to see Rangers whenever possible.