Reinventing the Ba’ Game By Donnie Fraser

Date: 28th January 2016

Reinventing the Ba’ Game By Donnie Fraser in Tain

Some thoughts on Scottish football league reconstruction & how it may look

Firstly I don’t claim any original thinking in this article but would hope to contribute to an overarching view of the game and to join some of the separate dots together which I feel have been lacking in many of the contributions to date.

First of all if we’re to have an overarching view of the game we have to determine who the game is for and what the objectives of such a reorganisation are for. Seems an obvious statement but contained therein is a dichotomy which goes to the heart of the problem at the highest levels, namely that distinction between the fans on one side upholding the game as a sport, and corporate interests on the other whether through sponsorship or simply the business interests/ models which are imposed on football operations and which govern the direction of the game in this country. I make no apologies for giving little concern to those whose interests are dictated by balance sheets rather than the “product” on the pitch, I am a fan, not a “consumer”.

League reconstruction should have a number of clearly defined objectives which should ultimately lead to an outcome which produces more young Scottish players coming through at a better standard, raising the standard of the domestic game and by implication the national team.

Winter v Summer fitba

If the game was invented now there is no way we would stick to the calendar we have devised, playing through the drudgery of a Scottish winter while the pitches lie idle during what we laughingly call a summer when the pitches are at their best for the players, and conditions are at their easiest for fans.

Historically we have played at this time for two real reasons, firstly before clubs were introduced and participation was a community event (think Orkney Ba’ Game or Hawick Uppies v Doonies) the games were largely played on holidays, the principle date being the New Year games. Then when the game was codified in the early amateur days many of the, mainly middle class, players wanted to play other sports such as cricket during the summer months. And whilst I’d miss the festive fixtures I don’t think either are good reasons for sticking to this format in the 21st century.

The biggest problems would be internationally for clubs and the national team. Should we make it to an international finals tournament again it would land in the early-middle part of the season, but this could be overcome by simply lengthening the top flight domestic season by e.g. 2 weeks at the start and end and allow a month break in the middle while the tournament progresses, possibly playing more midweek games in the summer when conditions are better anyway. It’s often overlooked that this would mean that our domestic players would be relatively fresh for any such tournament only being at most midway through rather than at the end of a long season.

For clubs the problem would be in European fixtures. At present we are disadvantaged by having to play qualifying rounds against teams whose season is already well under way, being into our season could help our clubs during this early period and make qualification for group stages more regular. Where it may be more detrimental could be in the later stages, though it should be noted that the European tournaments take a winter respite from December to February anyway. If the worst outcome of this change was that our clubs start regularly qualifying for the latter stages of UEFA tournaments then that could point to the relative success of the initiative!

Top Flight

For many fans this is the main area needing reformed, though I’d argue it needs done in conjunction with a wholesale reform of the game.

The main problems are the unequal distribution of resources and playing teams four times a season. I want to start from the position of accepting the need to move away from the 4 times a season format, which often translates to 5/6 games against the same opposition every season depending on cup draws, let’s be frank – it’s boring! Back in the late 70s/ early 80s when this system was in its heyday there was a vibrancy to it which has been dulled over the years. Back then there was a 10 team league with 2 up/ 2 down promotion/ relegation, it was cutthroat but exciting. Eventually the powers that be extended the league slightly while cutting down on the promotion/ relegation, creating more of a closed shop than a competitive environment. The clubs in the top flight took a bigger slice of the cake and the detrimental effects of relegation cowed the game into fear and avoiding defeat, teams stuffed with journeymen pros instead of allowing young players to flourish.

It seems obvious (again) that a larger league, whilst having the ‘problem ‘ of more ‘meaningless’ matches would create the conditions to allow young players an extended run in the first team to the long-term benefit of the game.

A 16 team league would allow the league that breathing space without diluting the quality of the game. Is there really that much of a difference between a Partick Thistle and a St Mirren? A Falkirk and Hamilton? Meanwhile playing twice a season makes these games bigger events in themselves.

The only real argument against it is the one which holds sway just now (those corporate interests) the loss of revenue from fewer games. Maybe then there is a place for a top 8 split in the top flight adding another 7 games to the fixture list? Even if it meant playing some league teams 3 times a season it could be an acceptable compromise?

2nd Flight

However it’s not just the top flight which needs reformed. All the top flights are in need of reorganisation to:
1.Allow ambitious non-league teams to progress
2.Introduce a proper regional basis for the lower leagues
3.Bring all of Scottish football together in one set-up

I look at the lower senior leagues and see games played in front of small crowds between teams at opposite ends of the country. As an example last month Stranraer travelled up to Peterhead for a midweek Div 1 game and took a grand total of 9 (NINE – one for the vidiprinter generations there) fans with them. This is not to belittle these teams in fact I salute the nine, they’re the heartblood of the game, my problem is with the system which produces such anomalies. Look elsewhere and see for example Elgin, who were at least as well supported in the Highland League as they are now, travelling to places like Annan and Berwick (and vice-versa). At this level of the game the costs of having to do this, both monetary for the clubs and domestically for part time players and fans, is considerable.

Surely in such examples it would be better for these teams to be playing in a regional set-up creating more local derbies/ interest and increasing gates?

I’d be in favour of only one national 2nd division of 16 which would allow those teams relegated from the top flight to consolidate, regroup and push for promotion again, most likely remaining full-time teams in a largely part-time set-up they should be able to do this, whilst allowing smaller teams enough of a breathing space that they can either push for promotion to the top, or simply maintain their position within the revamped league set-up, however that status should not be automatic as the recently introduced play-off system is one change which deserves to be kept.

Below this it becomes more difficult but I would envisage a set-up which incorporates those teams at the lower end of the current league set up and leading teams from the Highland League, Lowland League and Junior structures. In fact I see no reason why a proper pyramid system should not bring all the amateur and welfare teams into one complete system.

The difficult part is to say exactly how this would happen so I can only put forward my own preference which would be for 16 team leagues throughout, the third tier being split into north and south leagues, or Highland/ Lowland for the sake of argument, with the winners playing off for the right to play the bottom team in Division 2.

Regional & District Leagues

Below that the leagues would further split geographically based loosely on the current structures in place such as West of Scotland (juniors), North of Scotland FA, Aberdeenshire FA/ Aberdeen juniors etc. with a system of play offs between the various league winners to win through and play-off against the bottom team from the respective Highland/ Lowland league.

All these clubs would be incorporated within this Regional League set up, and below that could be a District League setup comprised of the amateur/ welfare/ North Caledonian/ island clubs, with again a more localised structure and a system of play offs before they could enter the Regional leagues.

Each step up the pyramid would lead to increased travelling and also a requirement for better facilities and such like and some clubs may prefer not to make that step, I don’t see that that would be a problem and if the situation arose they could simply withdraw from the play-offs.

It would need the assimilation of the Highland League, Lowland League, various Junior Associations as well as the SPFL and the SFA itself into one governing body, with all levels represented, with fans represented and with the national team manager represented on the governing board. To me this isn’t rocket science, and the simple rationale behind it is that item mentioned earlier; if we were inventing the game now, how would we do it? Keep asking yourself that question!

Based on the League standing at the end of the 2014-15 season I would suggest that the following set-up could possibly lead to some further discussion on how to bring the whole game together. There would have to be opportunities for clubs to choose to play in different leagues based on geographical or historical reasons. I must also add a disclaimer for clubs which have been placed in the wrong leagues due to my geographical inadequacies!)

league structure

However I make no apologies for those issues which have not been addressed here, of which there are many, not least of all the return of terracing at top flight games, reduced ticket prices, better youth/ community facilities, which I may put down some thoughts on in the future. One omission which could however have been addressed here would be the question of reserve teams entering the league set up which I would generally be in favour of, coming in at the regional (junior) level and working their way up, however I have avoided it on the grounds that they would have to stay at least one level below the first team and that could lead to a 2nd tier being dominated by Premier league reserve teams unable to progress. It is by no means an insurmountable problem but one which would have made what was intended to be a short blog even more lengthy!

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