The bottom line about SPFL relegation and ‘club 42’

The pyramid system brings fleeting media interest and bigger crowds for the play-offs, but does it bring any real benefit to the Scottish game?

By Forbes Inglis

This article first appeared in Issue 7 which was published in March 2018.

League Two really only gets attention from the media at the end of the season when the pyramid play-offs take place and there is some interest in whether ‘club 42’, the team finishing bottom, will survive for another season, or whether a side from the Highland or Lowland League will take their place in the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL).

In many ways, the play-offs are like a public execution, with football fans looking ghoulishly on, some hoping for the status quo to be upset and others fearing that their local favourites will drop into a lower league, with the strong possibility that they may never return.

That said, a pyramid system is probably logical… but will it be good for Scottish football?

For far too long the Scottish League was seen as a closed shop. Any vacancy, for that was the only route until the pyramid system came along, was generally fiercely contested. Sometimes, vacancies arose because of league re-construction, as happened in 1974 when Ferranti Thistle were admitted, while others have come about after individual clubs went out of business.

Whenever a vacancy arose the more ambitious clubs (the same names crop up over and over again) from both the north and south of the country put themselves forward for a place. They were rarely successful, which led to a second gripe: were applications from clubs in the Central Belt looked upon more favourably?

Despite the undoubted strength of the Highland League, clubs from the north had to wait until 1994 when Inverness Caledonian Thistle, an amalgamation of two of the three Inverness clubs, were admitted along with Ross County. Elgin City and Peterhead followed some six years later when two more clubs were required to allow the Premier League to become 12 teams. All of the former Highland League sides have coped well, with the first two clubs mentioned reaching the Premier League and winning national silverware.

Then came the most sensational addition to the Scottish senior game, in 2002, when Gretna FC were admitted as replacements for Airdrieonians who had gone into liquidation. Backed by millionaire Brooks Mileson, Gretna bounded up through the divisions to the top flight and lost in a penalty shoot-out to Hearts in the 2006 Scottish Cup final before the dream died almost as quickly when illness resulted in Mileson’s financial support being withdrawn and the club was forced to resign from the League in 2008.

Airdrie United also gained entry to the League in 2002 by taking over Clydebank FC. Then, in 2008, following Gretna’s resignation, there was another scramble for admission to the senior game when Annan Athletic won the vote.

It seemed clear that such a haphazard way of selecting new clubs couldn’t continue. With improved transport links it was easier to get about the country than before and there were mutterings about clubs without any ambition finishing regularly in the bottom slot in Scottish football. In 2013, when the SPFL came into being, the pyramid system was set up whereby the top clubs from the Highland and Lowland Leagues would play-off for the right to meet the bottom club in Division Two, referred to in the rules as ‘club 42’, in another play-off for the right to a place in the SPFL.

In some ways it seems reasonable that if clubs in the SPFL can be promoted and relegated then club 42’s place should be contested too and clubs from the other senior leagues given the opportunity to gain admission to the next tier as well.

The problem is not new. In some of the old regional leagues, formed in the early days of the game, the club finishing bottom required to be re-elected, Often, re-admission was a rubber stamping exercise as other member clubs realised that it might be their turn to finish bottom next time.

So, is there any truth in the allegation that some clubs in the lowest division lack ambition? Certainly some clubs finish bottom more regularly than others before they eventually move off the bottom and their place is taken by another team. In the 17 seasons following the millennium, East Stirlingshire finished bottom on eight occasions. However, in fairness, these things do seem to come in cycles. My own experience, as a former chairman of Montrose FC, is that most clubs are keen to play at the highest level possible.

And what of the history and background to those clubs in the basement slots? There are several Scottish clubs who have no fear of ever being in the lowest tier, far less occupying the bottom spot, but for others the possibility is all too real. Should we be making it possible for a club such as Queen’s Park, with all their history, to potentially lose their league status? They finished bottom of League Two just the season before the pyramid system was introduced.

If club 42 lost, they would find themselves playing in the Highland or Lowland League and, as East Stirlingshire have discovered, the way back from there might be long or perhaps even impossible. There is even a very real risk that relegated clubs could go out of business altogether.

Nevertheless, it might be argued that rules are rules, and if clubs cannot compete at the required level they should be replaced by one which can. I am a great believer in results on the field being the benchmark but few clubs, other than those at the top of the financial tree, can be assured of sustaining quality performances over a long period. If they could, we would have no need for promotion and relegation.

Yet league places at the end of any season are no more than a snapshot in time. This season’s bottom club could be next year’s promotion candidate.

Would replacing one struggling club with another do anything for the Scottish game? The last thing it needs is a succession of yo-yo teams never quite consolidating their place in the SPFL. However Edinburgh City appear to have proved equal to the challenges of the league – although only time will tell as to how successful they will become.

Perhaps we have seen the cream of the crop as regards sides from the other leagues, although I would imagine that everyone associated with Cove Rangers, East Kilbride and others would want to prove me wrong.

For the SPFL club involved it is a nerve-wracking time for officials, players and fans. Montrose manager Stewart Petrie, who wasn’t involved with the Gable Endies’s play-off matches but knows what it is like to be involved in the dog fight at the bottom, reckons there is far less pressure being at the top than fighting to avoid the dreaded basement slot.

There have been suggestions that for clubs north of Inverness their geographical position would make travelling too much of a problem, both in time and money. However the fully-dualled A9 will largely resolve that problem and Brora Rangers’ recent form has shown their ability to compete with sides from Division One even in away fixtures, Stranraer and East Fife having already been shown the door in this season’s Scottish Cup. Whether teams from the far north would be interested in travelling south every other week, with Annan, Berwick, Dumfries and Stranraer all possible destinations, is open to question. The truth is that there are clubs in the Highland and Lowland Leagues who are happy with their lot and not really interested in playing in the SPFL.

Success in the Cup is a different matter anyway, with players psyching themselves up for a giant-killing act. That said, I fear that any former SPFL club relegated to the lower leagues would find that every match they played would effectively be a cup-tie, making the possibility of promotion back to the SPFL even more difficult.

Possibly as big a difficulty as location is population, or the lack of it, which affects attendances and consequently finance. Although populations of individual towns are often small many have the advantage of a large hinterland giving the potential for larger-than-expected crowds. Perhaps that is partly behind the success of Ross County; Dingwall’s population is around 5,500. (Brora’s around 1,200.)

If the Gretna story taught the football authorities anything it is that the last thing the game needs are clubs who are unable to fulfil their obligations in the longer term.

Elsewhere, the Junior game appears particularly relaxed about the advent of the SPFL and their member clubs show little enthusiasm for playing in the league. Their clubs can now take part in the Scottish Cup, take a senior scalp or two, and then retreat again into their own competitions.

The idea of a structured approach to allowing new blood into the league set-up or to increase numbers, whether caused by financial casualties or reconstruction, is a good one theoretically but will exchanging ‘club 42’ for one from the lower leagues generally do anything to improve the Scottish game overall?

Possibly other sides from north and south of the country could emulate Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Ross County, make it to the top flight and win trophies. However there will be casualties. Many familiar names will disappear and no fan would want their particular favourite to go down that route.

There is undoubtedly interest in the pyramid system. It draws larger crowds for play-off matches and increases media interest but that only lasts for a brief period.

Will the pyramid system prove positive for the Scottish game in the future? Perhaps, as Zhou Enlai, a 20th-century Chinese politician, famously remarked when asked about the long term effects of the French Revolution: ‘It is too early to tell’.

This article first appeared in Issue 7 which was published in March 2018.

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