As the Celtic players paraded their forty-sixth Scottish Premiership trophy on Sunday under the watchful eye of the Glaswegian sun, even the most hearty of Hoop will have admitted that the inevitability of it all dampened the party mood. It’s safe to say, that in amidst the trials and tribulations of their city rivals, Rangers, winning the title has lost its edge.
But the players and fans certainly put a brave face on it, the worthy champions in a season that has brought tantrums, dazzling performances, fan discontent and eventual jubilation – and that’s just Celtic. All across the four levels of the Scottish football pyramid, heartache and celebration has been seen in equal measure. From Albion Rovers’ stroll to the League Two title, Cowdenbeath’s final day collapse, and seemingly never-ending backroom saga at Ibrox, Scottish football has certainly been blessed with one of its most pulsating seasons in recent memory.
And with the league finally having secured a new sponsor after several years of Neil Doncaster frantically looking, it would certainly appear that the Scottish game is back on the up, after years of fundamental mediocrity, where the league’s co-efficient has dropped below the likes of Cyprus and Belarus. But, with the league having remained outside the top twenty of Uefa’s co-efficient for several seasons, perhaps we are merely steadying a sinking ship to its level?
I fear this will be the case in the Scottish game unless the bosses, the fans and the players are prepared to make the drastic changes needed to maximise its potential. In a nation where the only season is winter – with maybe a day of summer thrown in along the way – it would make perfect sense for the season to change to a winter one, sooner, rather than later.
Whilst nothing so drastic has been done to the schedule quite yet, the continued mediocrity of our league and our teams has led to our season starting earlier and earlier – with second and third in the Premiership now starting their season in early July and our league not starting until August the 1st.
The earliness of it all is clearly having a drastic effect on our teams, as Motherwell fell in last years’ competition to lowly Stjarnan on July the 22nd, the year before to Russian club Kuban Krasnador, whilst Dundee United were brushed aside by Dynamo Moscow in 2012. And while some of our other teams have performed admirably in the early rounds, particularly St Johnstone in 2013/14, one trend cannot be ignored. These were all defeats in the early rounds of elite European competition to teams whose league season starts in the Spring.
Having fallen to the lows our league has, for us not to have adapted the league to match and cope with the changes in opposition is simply ludicrous. Our teams are expected to perform to the standards previously set, with very little time to adjust and adapt. Managers are yet to finalise their squads for the season whilst at the same time being berated for failing to beat part-timers from Iceland. As Stuart McCall will attest to, it is near impossible to build a squad in only a few weeks.
If our league started in March or April, like so many successful leagues across Europe do, then our teams would be far better suited to deal with the threats faced. Motherwell with a finalized squad should stroll past teams from Iceland, but the current format prevents them from doing so.
The result? Another lope of mediocrity, lost prize money, and fan boredom.
And if we look to our European neighbours of a similar stature, we will see that their teams continue to outlast our own. If we examine the Danish and Swedish leagues, who conveniently sandwich us in the co-efficient rankings, their success in the early European rounds shows that it can be done. In this year’s competition, Elfsberg made it through to the third round of Europa League Qualifying, whereas Aalborg and Copenhagen both made it to the final stages of Champions League Qualifying before being defeated. The Swedes most obvious success was champions Malmo, who battled through three rounds of Champions League matches, including defeating Red Bull Salzburg, to make it to the Champions League Group Stages. Let us not forget that our champions Celtic were brushed aside by Legia Warsaw, before blowing their second chance to the decidedly average Maribor of Slovenia.
This is not to say that all of our Summer Season neighbours harvest good European records, on the contrary, Finnish football has fallen by the wayside whereas Faroese football is at the level of our highland league, but by introducing competitive football before our teams fly off to far away lands on European adventures, we would ensure they would be better set to represent our game.
Better set and better financially capable. The financial windfall of competitive football during a period when our British neighbours crave it would be unheralded. For years, the English game has benefitted from grotesquely fluctuated TV deals and winning bonuses, with the lowest team in the English Premier League outstripping the total prize money of the whole SPFL by £20 million.
There remains an unfulfilled season of potential, with the summer months producing little in the way of competitive football, and the TV companies reduced to showing mediocre friendlies or uninspired internationals. The Scottish game’s schedule change would tap into this market, providing our television sets with the missing football we crave and in turn bringing in a lot more money to the game. It would be highly unlikely that our funding would ever scale the billions of the English game, but it would certainly improve things. This money could be used to improve the whole of the Scottish game, and in turn, its European position.
But I must admit in this widely optimistic picture I have painted, there are certainly several complaints that are commonly voiced against it. The most obvious one is that it would leave a huge gap, November to March in the Scandinavian model, for our teams to fill. And as the later stages of European competition occurs in the mid winter months, this break will only prove damaging to our teams as they progress through Europe. Just what could we do to avert this issue?
The answer is simple. Like in Sweden, have our cup competition during the winter break. It is no surprise that the League Cup fails to share the glamour of the Scottish Cup and in doing so many teams have lost the urgency they once had. But, if we were to completely change the cup and utilize it as effectively a competitive pre-season event, we would not only keep our players fit, but also bring a new sense of intrigue to a dying tournament. This could even be sweetened still with a European place awarded to the winner of the tournament – taking the place away from third in the Premiership.
Alternatively, the League Cup could be scraped completely – as it needlessly bloats the schedule – and have the Scottish Cup occurring during the winter break, or we could even create an inter-Europe competition with our Scandinavian neighbours and our far eastern European brethren. But these ideas are yet to be explored in full.
However, even with the fine points yet to be written, it should be evidently clear that a switch in the Scottish footballing schedule would bring incalculable benefits to the game. Our teams would be more adept at fighting through the early European rounds, we would have a product of competitive football that the TV companies could buy in to, and our winter off-season would see the remodeling of competitive pre-season.
Yes, there are many things to consider, as we would be faced with the situation of playing important playoff and title deciding matches in winter, but the benefits of such a sacrifice would only help the Scottish game to grow.