Thursday 19 October 2017

SPL needs overhaul to stay afloat

EWAN MURRAY

There was a clear contradiction as Henry McLeish unveiled the second and final part of his review of Scottish football on Thursday. Yet it was one the former first minister was happy enough to explain.

Alongside what constituted a battering of the Scottish FA's structure, McLeish rightly highlighted an urgent need for the game to not only re-engage a disillusioned set of supporters but also to attract fresh faces through the turnstiles. McLeish was blunt about the fact Scottish football is on a life support machine.

Live television and winter conditions represent an explanation in part but Tuesday night's attendance of 3,324 for Motherwell's meeting with Hearts was merely the latest troublesome indicator. Pricing is a key issue, as is the continued monotony of four encounters per SPL season against the same opposition.

On the issue of cost, McLeish agrees changes must be made. He does, though, support the proposal to reduce the top flight to 10 teams, which will be discussed by member clubs tomorrow -- but fans want the league expanded rather than shrunk.

There is still a notion that a 14-team set-up could be introduced but McLeish advocates four fewer, on a fiscal basis alone. "My evidence suggests that on financial and economic grounds there is no alternative to the 10," he says. In other words, the limited monetary pot -- which shows no immediate sign of being boosted -- could not be spread among 14 clubs without casualties.

On the topic of cost, McLeish agrees with the wider public. "Pricing is an issue," he explains. "We have 250,000 people unemployed in Scotland, that number is likely to rise with public-sector cuts kicking in and sluggish growth. One of the problems with the pricing is that the game is critically balanced on income and expenditure. In a critical or marginal situation, all income becomes important. So this is maybe not the best time to look at it.

"But if you look across Europe, the highest attendances are in Germany. What happened there was that they substantially reduced prices. Their average gate is something like 6,000 higher than the English Premier League. There clearly is some link between attendances and price.

"What I am appealing for is that the Scottish Football League and the SPL are more creative and innovative. At times when there is a fear of failure and a fear of finance, you get a protectionist mentality. That's maybe unavoidable but I am certainly arguing against protectionism. I am arguing for growing the game."

McLeish, 62, is not an advocate of standing areas returning to Scottish grounds -- that is another model that has proved successful in Germany -- nor permitting alcohol sales within stadiums. "I think Scotland has a wider problem with alcohol," he says. "That wouldn't be part of the debate that I would support."

Another taboo subject has been a move to Friday night football, which is regarded as attractive particularly by lower-league clubs. In what does seem a ludicrous stance, police forces across Scotland continue to block that possibility.

"It's a simple idea; a lot of the Scottish Football League clubs know that on a Saturday the 'Mr' is being dragged along to the shops or to do other things. Life has changed, the socio-economic structure has changed," says McLeish.

"The police have said up until now: 'Friday night, bad night, we would have to transfer resources.' What resources would you have to transfer for East Fife v Brechin City? It is now time for innovation; let's see if we can get bigger crowds. It is high time that the police asked if there is a real problem with this and if there isn't, let's experiment."

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