Scottish Football: The Season That Was

As a Hearts fan, I think I speak for the vast majority of Jambos when I say that the 2012-2013 season cannot end quickly enough. It has been a miserable season, punctuated with occasional moments of moderate pleasure. The Skol Cup (or whatever they’re calling it these days) defeat to St Mirren was a particular low, even if our presence in another final was a pleasant surprise. We seem unlikely to be caught by Dundee, but equally Europe is way beyond our grasp by this stage of the season. We will welcome the summer and the (fingers crossed) new ownership of the club, even if the summer will likely herald the departure of several first team favourites.

From the perspective of Rangers, it has also been an odd season. It seems as though this season has been simply a matter of getting through the SFL3 campaign and, now that reconstruction looks unlikely, you can set about the business of preparing for the SFL2 campaign of next season along with the addition and subtractions that occur in any footballing summer. The ending of the transfer embargo will also open the club up to new signings. The comments of Jon Daly show that Rangers is no less an attractive potential employer to professionals.

It will surprise few when I say that it has been a strange season in the SPL. Celtic, expected to run away with the title only relatively recently began to pull away from the pack. Inverness, despite having an incredibly thin (but undoubtedly talented) squad, have shone this season and Motherwell have been one of the most consistent sides in the top flight. The national team, on the other hand, has been utterly dreadful to the point that the Tartan Army, on its homeward journeys, now resembles a real army: emotionally battered, physically ruined and losing investment in the cause for which it once strove.

The real question, as relevant to Rangers, however, is whether or not the SPL, and by extension Scottish football itself, is actually better off without the Ibrox side participating in the top flight.

When SPL clubs came together to decide on whether or not Rangers would be readmitted into the league, the overwhelming message from fans was ‘no’. Scottish football fans did not want Rangers to simply return to the SPL after everything that took place in seasons past. The subsequent ‘titlegate’ fiasco was utterly pointless and I’m sure that the vast majority of rival fans felt little more than ambivalence as to its outcome. When it was decided that Rangers would not have their titles stripped, common sense had prevailed.

You cannot go back and retrospectively award a title from, say, fifteen years ago to the club who finished second. Vacating titles is a relatively common punishment in American college sports. For example, the University of Southern California was recently forced to return its 2004 NCAA football title after it was found that players were enjoying “illegal benefits”. I could go on about the amount of money that the NCAA and its universities make from elite college athletes, only offering them an education – which many of them have neither the will nor the capacity to engage with – in return. The pertinent issue here is that vacating titles does not discourage ‘bad’ behaviour on the part of sports programmes. Since the USC controversy, there have been further instances where collegiate sports programmes have suffered punishments associated with ‘illegal benefits’.

Rangers punishment was to drop to the lowest level of the SFL. There was never any need to go beyond this, particularly once the new owners started to pay off debts accrued in the hedonistic era of yesteryear. I exercise hyperbole here of course: you could hardly argue that not paying your newspaper bill exactly constitutes hedonism. Nonetheless, with the little man getting his money, objections to the continued presence of Rangers in the Scottish Football League should have dissipated; except of course for those who awake in the middle of the night screaming ‘SEVCO’ at the top of their lungs.

Sadly, the persistence of the reconstruction debate shows that common sense and Scottish football do not always enjoy a happy marriage. Reconstruction may have been narrowly defeated, but there were serious efforts to push the new league structure through. Hearts, for example, released a statement explaining their (I say ‘their’ rather than ‘our’ deliberately) support for reconstruction. It’s a lengthy and reasoned statement, available on the official club website.

Regardless of all the reconstruction talk, we still engage in the seasonal ‘split’ where the SPL divides into the top and bottom 6 for no good reason whatsoever. The proposed transitionary splits makes so little sense it could only be a product of a governing body that has little-to-no grasp of reality. By engaging with the idea of reconstruction, the Scottish footballing authorities are, once again, merely deflecting attention from far more pertinent issues like why our national team has fallen to seventy-seventh in the world. That’s just below Shotts Bon Accord, for those keeping track.

What the Scottish football authorities are doing is papering over the cracks of a house that sits on the edge of a rapidly eroding cliff top.

The question has been posed in many circles as to whether or not the absence of Rangers from the SPL is part of the problem, merely a symptom, or even the problem itself.

Certainly there is the television argument. With Rangers in the SPL, games are more attractive for TV companies. The problem was, and indeed is, that the television deal brought more money to Rangers and Celtic than it did the other clubs. Therefore it was less of a factor when the decision process, as to whether or not to allow Rangers to return to the SPL, began.

Support for returning Rangers to the SPL among rival fans was almost non-existent. I’ll admit, I didn’t think it would have been particularly fair – unless the precedent stood for any other club going through similar financial issues.

With the threat of reduced television money hanging over clubs, they sought to recoup this money through the most traditional route: bums on seats.

Once the ‘no’ vote passed and Rangers were ultimately consigned to the Third Division, the message was clear: keep Rangers out and the fans will come to games. Fans have complained about the ‘Old Firm’ dominating the game in Scotland for years, gathering favour after favour from the ruling body and officials alike. I’m sure a few of you will be able to cite examples of mediocre officiating that ended up costing your club points over recent seasons, certainly Celtic fans are vocal in their criticism of officials and the ruling bodies.

Without Rangers, the SPL could realign, with opportunities for success presented to smaller clubs. St Mirren’s triumph in the recent League Cup Final supports this hypothesis. The inevitable Celtic title parade and the possibility that they will double up with a Scottish Cup win in May rather disprove it. Nobody who was watching recent cup games on television can help but have noticed how sparse the attendances were. This is not only a problem for cup competitions.

The problem was that, once Rangers were gone, the fans did not keep up their side of the bargain. I’ll let the numbers – available on the official SPL website and taken on 15th April - speak for themselves (omitting Dundee and Dunfermline):

Club / 2011-12 average attendance / 2012-13 average attendance

Aberdeen / 9297 / 9753

Celtic / 50904 / 45848

Dundee United / 7482 / 7663

Inverness / 4023 / 4067

Kilmarnock / 5537 / 4818

Hearts / 13381 / 12811

Hibs / 9909 / 10762

Motherwell / 5946 / 5097

St Mirren / 4493 / 4418

St Johnstone / 4170 / 3794

Aberdeen, Dundee United, Hibs and Inverness have seen their attendances rise, albeit marginally in the cases of United and ICT. Otherwise, there are largely marginal decreases in average attendance. And then there’s Celtic, who have lost five thousand fans, on average. That’s not entirely their fault of course. There is no question that away support will have dwindled in the absence of Old Firm games. Indeed, there is a strong case to be made that the second set of figures would be higher if Rangers fans were added.

We cannot ignore the external economic conditions imposed upon clubs this season. Scottish unemployment has been dropping, but increased living expenses mean that, for many, football is an unnecessary luxury. A 2012 survey suggested that the price of a day out at an SPL game cost anything between £20.50 (Inverness) and £30.30 (Celtic), when buying the cheapest ticket available.

Less quantifiable, but equally relevant, is the drop in quality in terms of the on-field product. Other than collating a large sample of opinions, one can only hypothesise about the lack of quality in Scottish football in 2013, but there seems little doubt that the vast majority of current SPL sides would lose in a match against the 2004 side, all things being equal.

The issue of the quality of the league is, of course, only relevant to discussions of Rangers at a push.

When the aforementioned survey was published, Neil Doncaster commented that the SPL was still the best supported league per head of population in Europe; a statement which betrays Doncaster’s selective reasoning over the management of Scottish football. The idea that ‘we’re still okay’ indicates that little is being done to improve the quality of the match-day experience for supporters. The quality of the product need not be improved artificially; I recently attended the Linlithgow Rose-Bo’ness Emirates Junior Cup quarter final and it was not significantly worse than the average SPL game. Crucially, however, it was only £6 in. There is no justification for Scottish football costing its supporters so much.

Clubs need to acknowledge that young fans in 2013 have access to foreign football (I include the English leagues, not significantly better in terms of quality than Scottish football, but streets ahead in terms of marketing) like never before. Growing up during the 1990s, you could watch Football Italia on Channel 4. Nowadays, kids want to see Ronaldo and Messi. Fans also have access to these players like never before. Even with increased air-fares, parents have a legitimate choice between going to see their local SPL side every week, or saving up for a month or two and taking a trip to Barcelona or Madrid to see the very best players in the world.

These young fans never fully engage with their local team in the way that most of us did. The issue of engaging young fans poses a significant challenge for all clubs in Scotland.

Most of us acknowledge that there are a lot of football teams in Scotland, perhaps even too many. Dunfermline are the most recent side to run into serious financial difficulties. Despite widespread appeals, they were not able to top 3,000 fans through the gates for their recent home clash with Falkirk. One has to expect that there were more than a few rival fans in attendance to show solidarity. The question has rightly been asked if Dunfermline doesn’t want to save the Pars, why should any of the rest of us make any significant effort to help out?

Perhaps Scotland does have too many professional football clubs. Perhaps we need to accept that football is not an integral part of the identity of any given town. Or perhaps the only real change we need is a change at the top?

Andrew Sanders is a Research Fellow at University College Dublin. He is the author of ‘Inside the IRA: Dissident Republicans and the War for Legitimacy’ and co-author of ‘Times of Troubles: Britain’s War in Northern Ireland’.

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