Restructuring Scottish Football
The Scottish Football pyramid is changing next season but what if we didn’t stop there?
Take yourself forward in time. It’s the 2026/27 season, the final whistle has just blown on a fresh, yet sunny spring day in the North East; Ayr United have just done the double over Aberdeen in the top flight for the first time in their history, following a 1-0 victory at an upgraded Somerset Park earlier in the season.
In the second tier, Kelty Hearts and Cove Rangers are involved in a straight shoot-out for a promotion play-off place. At the bottom of the SPFL, Cowdenbeath and Fraserburgh are desperately seeking the crucial points they need to maintain their status within the top flight.
Meanwhile, in the Scottish Cup, Orkney played in the first round for the first-ever time after a shock promotion to the Highland League the previous season.
The Scottish football landscape has changed since the restructuring took place three seasons before, and the game has never been healthier.
The SPFL Premier now consists of 16 teams. Each club playing against the 15 other clubs home and away before a series of mini-groups.
Below the Premier we now have SPFL 1 and SPFL 2. Both divisions are made up of 18 clubs playing against each other home and away for a total of 34 games.
The Highland and Lowland Leagues are still non-league but sit at tier four with the full pyramid continuing below them.
Attendances are up with positive feedback from fans about going to a variety of new grounds. The novelty of only having to visit once on league duty makes the day out to places like Galabank and Victoria Park in Buckie all the more special. There is a freshness about Scottish football with ambitious clubs being able to use the pyramid and cup to their advantage.
So how does it actually look?
Total number of teams: 16
Total number of games played by each club: 36
Relegation: Two automatic plus third bottom in a two-legged play-off v third place in SPFL 1.
If the restructure was to be next season, the 16 teams that would make up the top division would be:
Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen, Motherwell, Hibernian, Heart of Midlothian, Kilmarnock, Livingston, Hamilton, Ross County, St Johnstone, St Mirren, Dundee United, Inverness, Ayr United and Dundee.
Clubs initially play each other home and away once.
Once those 30 games are complete, the top division splits into mini-groups of four who play each other home and away once more. The top four, 5th to 8th and the same for 9th to 12th and the bottom four.
This gave the host broadcaster at the time, their four Celtic v Rangers games, clubs a 36 game season and fans of all clubs new grounds to go to.
Similar to the SPFL Premiership split before, teams can’t finish higher than where they finished after playing everyone home and away. In this 2026/27 season the top five after 30 games have been confirmed as Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen, Dundee United and Hibernian. Hibs can now no longer finish fourth and face Motherwell, Kilmarnock and Hearts in their post-30 round of games.
The new format will certainly have seen some interesting games come the end of the season as clubs look to compete at the top and bottom of the table.
Last season, the battle to escape relegation was a fascinating spectacle. All four teams raised their games as the desperation for survival grew. Bumper crowds at all games witnessed tense drama and joyous moments that will live long in the memory alongside the heartbreak that no fan wishes to experience.
For fans of St Mirren, it was more joy than despair as they secured a fourth bottom finish on the last day of the season, having started the day in second last. The Paisley side’s home win over Dunfermline sent the Fifers down along with the surprise relegation of Livingston. Ayr United went on to survive via the play-offs after a penalty shoot-out win over Morton.
The argument had been “what about those in the mini-group in positions 9th to 12th, they are dead-rubber games”. This may be the case but it has been no different to 7th playing 8th post-split in the 12 team Premiership format. All four clubs had 30 games to try and improve their position before this, so a few games at the end of the season against those around them mean there are still positions and prize money to be won.
With the distinct possibility of three clubs being relegated, another argument was that there wouldn’t be enough quality to maintain a high standard in the league. Before the restructure we saw the following Premiership scores in the 2019/20 season:
Celtic 7 – 0 St Johnstone
Celtic 6 – 0 Ross County
Celtic 5 – 0 Hearts
Celtic 5 – 0 St Mirren
Aberdeen 0 – 4 Celtic
Motherwell 0 – 4 Celtic
Rangers 6 – 1 Hibernian
Rangers 5 – 0 Aberdeen
Rangers 5 – 0 Hamilton
Rangers 5 – 0 Hearts
Ross County 0 – 4 Rangers
St Johnstone 0 – 4 Rangers
Yes, there have been a few big scorelines already post restructure; Celtic’s 7-1 win over Dunfermline earlier this season being one but this isn’t uncommon, it’s football.
There’s always the risk of a club “doing a Brechin City” and not winning a game in the league. Again, this is football, sometimes these things happen. You only have to look down south to see the odd instance when a visit to the top division hasn’t worked out for a club for whatever reason. Sunderland in 2005/06 won a paltry 15 points and Derby then went through the 2007/08 season winning just 11 points. It doesn’t define a league or it’s competitiveness.
For those teams that haven’t been used to top-flight football, there have been plenty of opportunities to pick up points through the season. The additional revenue that’s come from being in the top flight has allowed for investment back into the team, facilities and off-field activity which has only been a good thing for clubs and Scottish football.
Like many clubs post-restructure, Ayr invested in upgrading parts of Somerset Park and are now heading into another season in the top division with further plans to invest in their home ground.
Total number of teams: 18
Total number of games played by each club: 34
Promotion: Top two automatic plus third into a two-legged play-off versus the third bottom in SPFL Premier.
Relegation: Two automatic plus third bottom in a play-off v third place in SPFL 2.
If the restructure was to be next season, the 18 teams that would make up SPFL One would be:
Dunfermline, Greenock Morton, Arbroath, Alloa, Patrick Thistle, Queen of the South, Raith Rovers, Falkirk, East Fife, Dumbarton, Montrose, Forfar, Stranraer, Airdrieonians, Clyde, Peterhead, Cove Rangers, Edinburgh City
Each team plays each other home and away once for a total of 34 games. With an 18 team league, there has been plenty of variety for away days.
The main argument before this division was set-up was that there are several full-time teams up against part-time teams. This was nothing new with full-time and part-time teams competing in the Championship and League One pre-restructure.
Cove Rangers harboured ambitions of eventually going full-time when they first joined the SPFL, and with their ascent through the leagues and now competing for promotion in SPFL 1, their decision to move full-time last season is paying dividends.
The two-legged play-off for promotion between third-bottom of the Premier and third-place in SPFL 1 is no longer set-up to protect the team from the division above.
Total number of teams: 18
Total number of games played by each club: 34
Promotion: Top two automatic plus third into a two-legged play-off versus third bottom in SPFL 1.
Relegation: Two automatic.
If the restructure was to be next season, the 18 teams that would make up SPFL 2 would be:
Annan Athletic, Cowdenbeath, Elgin City, Queen’s Park, Stirling Albion, Brechin City, Stenhousemuir, Albion Rovers, Brora Rangers, Inverurie Loco Works, Fraserburgh, Buckie Thistle, Rothes, Kelty Hearts, Bonnyrigg Athletic, BSC, East Stirlingshire, Spartans
SPFL 2 was put together with the remaining SPFL teams and the top five sides from both the Highland and Lowland League at the time.
Do many Highland League clubs want to play in a league set-up like this? -was a question commonly asked. Why would Brora want to make the trip to Annan, Coatbridge and Edinburgh every other week especially when in 2015 they were reported to be hesitant in regards to promotion to league football?
Speaking in November 2019, Brora player-manager Steven Mackay told the Press and Journal that the club would be keen to test themselves in the SPFL after getting a taste for it with their exploits in the Scottish Cup.
“We’ve got the appetite for it as a club… It’s a massive commitment travel-wise but the boys are up for that. We think that with the squad we have got, we could compete in the Scottish leagues, certainly in League 2.”
As a league, common sense and support have prevailed; rules are in place that sees certain fixtures like Annan v Brora and Brora v Annan arranged for a weekend at the start and end of the season to minimise any chance of postponements. We also now find that any midweek fixtures are kept to a minimum especially with two fewer fixtures to fit in and geographical pressures are once again taken into consideration. Being Scotland though sometimes the weather dictates how many midweek games do actually take place.
From a numbers standpoint, the argument that 42 senior clubs were already too many and to add another 10 was lunacy. This has proven not to be the case. An SPFL expansion had been mooted previously as a back door for Colt teams to enter the league alongside Highland and Lowland League sides, although nothing had ever come from it there was an appetite to consider expansion. It should be noted at this stage that Colt teams were not permitted entry to the league set-up.
The question posed by those in favour of the restructure was “What difference would 10 extra teams make if the clubs, fans and league benefits overall?” The argument at the time was that all these teams already exist and are playing league games every weekend with hundreds of fans in attendance. Spartans were and still are doing far more for their local community and the greater good of the game than a large number of current SPFL clubs, so new clubs should be seen as a way of setting new standards. No new clubs were asked to spring up out of nowhere with no fan base. These additional 10 clubs are now part of a more fluid league system.
The overall prize pool did need to be increased. However with what is now a more attractive league system the rewards through TV and sponsor deals have increased. Feasibility studies into an SPFL TV model that covers all games in the league and pressure to reduce some of the 3pm blackout restrictions are gathering pace.
This new set-up is not a closed shop either. Automatic relegation exists from SPFL 2 embracing the whole concept of the pyramid. Two sides go down automatically, replaced by the league winners from both the Highland and Lowland Leagues. BSC Glasgow is still hurting from last season’s home defeat to Elgin City on the last day, that saw them relegated alongside Albion Rovers.
The Highland League was capped at 16 teams to mirror the Lowland League. When the new structure was introduced four clubs were added to the Highland League to bring them to 16. Banks O’Dee, Golspie Sutherland, Carnoustie Panmure and Culter were the four selected from the applicant’s list. With the Lowland League, the clubs were selected from who topped the East, West and South of Scotland leagues plus two more from the three clubs that finished runners-up across each league.
As things stand, the boundary is the River Tay – the rule that was in place previously. Those clubs north of the Tay move into the Highland League. Those south into the Lowland League. Of course the chances of exactly one relegated team falling within the Highland League boundary and the other within the Lowland League boundary every season are slim.
Based on the location of those in the SPFL set-up there is an increased chance that two clubs would need to go into the Lowland League and this was the case last season as BSC Glasgow and Albion Rovers both went down. In this instance, the number of teams relegated from the Lowland League was upped to allow for the pyramid mode to continue working.
In the Highland League, Orkney were the benefactors of an additional promotion to the Highland League to maintain the 16 sides once Inverurie Loco Works went back up as League champions.
The Scottish Cup
Since its revamp in 2007, the early rounds have produced some special moments and memories for clubs up and down the country.
Auchinleck Talbot, Brora Rangers, BSC Glasgow, Formartine United, Broxburn Athletic and Bonnyrigg Rose had all knocked out league opposition before the restructure.
More clubs in the Scottish football pyramid has meant more clubs gaining their Scottish FA Licence. There were two options tabled as to how to approach this once the league restructure was in place.
Option one was that the prelims were made up entirely of those licenced clubs that sit below the Highland and Lowland Leagues plus the winners of the Amateur Cup and Junior Cup (should it still exist). The prelims set-up varies slightly on a season to season basis depending on the number of licenced clubs at Tier 5 and below.
Option two, licenced clubs are not guaranteed entry to the Scottish Cup. The Preliminary Rounds are determined by league and cup results of the previous season. In this instance, the top five from each Tier 5 league plus selected cup winners enter the preliminary rounds.
In the end, option one was chosen as an additional incentive for clubs to gain their licence and reward them for the investments into the clubs.
With all this in mind, the new set-up is as follows.
First Round: All 16 Highland League and 16 Lowland League teams enter at this stage. Four successful sides from the preliminary rounds join those 32 clubs.
Second Round: The 18 first-round winners are joined by the 18 SPFL 2 teams.
Third Round: The 18 second-round winners are joined by the 18 SPFL 1 sides plus the bottom four clubs from the SPFL Premier i.e. the newly promoted clubs plus third and/or fourth bottom from the previous season in the Premier.
Fourth Round: The 20 third-round winners are joined by the remaining 12 SPFL Premier clubs.
Replays have remained up until the semi-finals. The semi-finals in an ideal world wouldn’t necessarily have to be played at Hampden if a more suitable football venue was available.
The introduction of the group stages reinvigorated the League Cup so with this in mind the group stages remained with the set-up as follows based on four teams in Europe.
Ten groups of five consisting of 12 SPFL Premier sides, all of the SPFL 1 and SPFL 2 clubs plus the two relegated teams from the previous season in SPFL 2.
Should we be in the fortunate position of five clubs in Europe then one of the runners-up from either the Highland or Lowland League (determined by a draw) enter instead.
Group winners progress to the next round with the top two runners-up and four European sides also competing in the second round knock-outs. If we had five teams in Europe then only the best runner-up would make it to the next round.
There are no replays and the final is still played before Christmas.
A competition that was much maligned for its welcoming of colts and teams from around the UK and Ireland changed again as part of the restructure. Put down as an experiment with mixed results, the Colts and non-Scottish sides no longer compete in the Challenge Cup.
The Challenge Cup is now a competition that consists of the 36 SPFL 1 and SPFL 2 clubs and the top 14 clubs from both the Highland and Lowland Leagues.
The first three rounds are regionalised with an open draw from the quarter-finals onwards.
Would any of the above ever happen?
You would hope so. Scottish Football is brilliant but what if we could make it even better? Unfortunately, it’s hard to see anything like this happening at the moment. SPFL clubs want to protect what they have even if it is at the detriment of the greater good. You can’t even get an automatic relegation place from League Two as it stands.
Back in 2013, there were proposals put together to pursue a 12-12-18 structure. This never succeeded at the time. Could a 16-18-18 structure now succeed with a full pyramid below? We can but dream.