Football is a very simple game.
Its popularity around the world is underpinned by the fact it can be played anywhere. If you can fashion a ball and a set of goalposts, you can play. There may be regional or situational variations, but almost all of the 17 rules of the game apply as equally to the public park as to the professional arena.
Perversely, the simplicity of the game means the integrity of football is fragile. A seemingly simple rule change can dramatically alter the way the game is played. In 1925, the adoption of the modern offside rule made the tactics of 1924/25 obsolete overnight. In 24/25 there were 1,178 goals in the Scottish top flight, the following season that jumped to 1,338.
The history of the game is littered with similar stories; substitutions didn’t just help with injuries, they altered the tactical possibilities, fitness levels and ability to waste time in any given match. The introduction of penalty shoot-outs altered the mindset of teams in extra time, the ill-fated golden goal rule had the opposite effect, even the current discussions about VAR have been framed by concerns over how it’ll impact on the flow of the game.
This is the story of two fundamental changes to Scottish football, and how they impacted on one of the strangest seasons of the modern era: 1993/94 (See table 1).
The first change had been two years in the making. After months of debate over a proposed Scottish Super League, it was decided that the top flight should be reduced from a 44-game season contested between 12 teams, to a more manageable 36 game season with just 10. Three of the 12-team division would be relegated at the end of the 1993/94 campaign. Revolution had been in the air, following the successful relaunch of the English football league as the Premiership.
The second fundamental change was more than a decade in the making. Following the suggestion of Scottish fan favourite, Jimmy Hill, English football had introduced the three-points-for-a-win system in 1981. The thinking was that it would be far more advantageous to press for victory than settle for a draw.
To say the 1993/94 season was a tight affair would be an understatement. In a grinding, punishing 44-game season, Rangers won the league by three points, ahead of Aberdeen, who were in turn one point ahead of Motherwell. The contraction of the top flight from a 12 to a 10-team league meant three sides were relegated. Two points separated sixth and relegation in tenth.
And there were draws. Lots and lots of draws. Aberdeen were defeated only six times all season, but set a top-flight
record for the highest number of tied games in a single season with an incredible 21. A further five teams drew 20 matches. In 264 Premier Division matches a staggering 104 (39%) finished level.
The attrition of the division was apparent, and should be a point of observation for anyone urging the return of the longer campaign. Rangers won just three of their opening ten matches and would have struggled to recover in a shorter season or under three-points-for-a-win. Aberdeen finished second, winning only three of their final ten matches. Hearts managed a single victory between November and March, but finished in the relative safety of seventh.
The real drama was at the bottom of the table. Dundee United finished the season in sixth place and 42 points. St Johnstone were relegated in tenth position with 40, a total that no side – not even with an additional point for victory – has achieved without safety. The Saints defence conceded 47 goals all season, a remarkable statistic considering title-winning Rangers let in 41 (See table 2).
The final day of the season was remarkable, with four teams in real danger of relegation. Hearts and Partick Thistle squared off, knowing a victory would keep them safe, and potentially doom their opponent. Kilmarnock faced Hibernian and St Johnstone played Motherwell. Killie’s draw saw them reach safety, but there were hugely nervous moments for St Johnstone and Partick Thistle. Saints won 1-0, Thistle lost by the same scoreline. Any further goalscoring would have impacted who was safe.
Did the amendments make football more entertaining? That’s hard to judge, as there was no significant improvement in the average number of goals scored per game. While the following seasons showed a drop in the number of drawn matches, the previous seasons also had far fewer draws. 1993/94 was an outlier (See table 3).
Interestingly, if we were to retro-fit the three-points-for-a-win model into the 93/94 season, very little would change. Rangers would have had a slightly more comfortable gap at the top of the table, Motherwell would have pipped Aberdeen for second place, and Dundee and Raith would have finished level on points, but the differences would have been minimal.
It’s debateable as to whether the additional point for victory encouraged more attacking football, it simply exaggerated the extent to which some teams were better than others. In the seasons following the new scoring system there was no significant rise in the average number of goals registered, there were simply fewer games that ended in a draw. The division of the leagues, and in particular the three-team relegation, was a savage way to separate a tight division.