As I write, we are deep into the latest Covid shutdown for the lower and non-leagues of Scotland, information is still quite unclear over what will happen with a resumption. At the time, with numbers rising and the majority of teams below the Championship part-time, it almost seemed inevitable that football being suspended was going to happen. How this transpired was yet another monumental case of complete mismanagement, by those in charge of Scottish football. No club was informed that this shutdown was going to happen. It seems to have come on a whim and does little to dispel internet rumours that these leagues were served up because of Celtic’s ill-advised jolly (for that’s what it was) to Dubai. For example, the chairman of my club, Edinburgh City, found out by scrolling through his Twitter feed. He was not the only club executive to find out this way.
As someone who follows a League 2 team, I might be a bit more sensitive to what is happening. But, as someone who has deserted a ‘big’ club to follow said League 2 team, I’ve some understanding of how attitudes can be towards teams below the Championship. Listening and talking to fans, viewing various fans fora and social media, there is a complete and utter disdain, from many (but not all), to ‘wee teams’. I have read, and directly heard, various opinions from ‘let them die’ to ‘what’s the point’ to, bluntly, ‘fuck them’. Despite these people being told that teams have a massive community outreach, with some vital supports (for example, Stenhousemuir delivering food and medicine to those in need), there is little regard for such a club’s place – ‘so what’. This opinion is rooted in a long standing belief that those clubs, and players, that endeavour in part time football, have ‘no ambition’ and are not in need of help and support. Granted, some comments, from certain chairman and managers, sometimes give this impression. Brian Reid, the Albion Rovers manager, has made comments about not wanting Brora promoted because of additional costs and, only recently, has said to close off the pyramid, for this campaign, if the league alters the rules mid-season (although the latter did not seem to matter when the pandemic started). Such comments are absolutely astonishing and do nothing to help the game, or the thinking about it, for those below the Championship.
Not all think this way and there are some who are as forward thinking as any in football. Indeed, Queens Park have just employed one of the most respected executives, in the Scottish game, in Leeann Dempster. My own chairman speaks calmly, well, and with clear ambition, the aim to be ‘the best part time team in Scotland’. He has also spoken of a desire to move to full time football. Perhaps overly bold but it certainly shows there are teams willing to try and compete and better themselves. For every team below the Championship, to be tarred in such way, is as angering as it is frustrating. ‘Just because’ you happen to support a team, that may not be ‘fashionable’ or ‘rich’, does not make you less of a fan, nor is your club ‘less’ of a team with their position in the pyramid. And it certainly does not mean you’re happy to sit about in a league, enjoy mid-table mediocrity and take patronising pats on the head from so-called ‘big’ teams.
I have come to realise, over time, that many could not care with what happens in, with, and to lower league football. There is a very clear, pervading, attitude that those below a certain level are somehow not worthy. This has been clear, in particular for those in the Lowland and Highland Leagues, and has become more evident since the original Covid shutdown. Whilst my own team, Edinburgh City, continued to vote in favour of the integrity of the pyramid (despite certain, vocal elements thinking otherwise), many chose not to. We can perhaps point to certain members of the SPFL board but there’s 42 teams with a vote, with a majority deciding to pull up the ladder. This was only reinforced by how to split any monies, from the Scottish Government, as part of the financial support package given to Scottish sports, with the somewhat disproportionate cash given to the Championship. Furthermore, there was little consideration to extending either the transfer or loan windows, until a resumption was mooted. This has meant clubs have lost players leading to difficulties in replacing them, such as club staff being unable to work if on furlough. This does little to dissuade many from thinking there’s a general disregard for such teams.
Many may argue the SPFL does not help itself in how it markets the league(s). This is true. It is terrible and continual mismanagement does nothing to help the Scottish game, apart from adding to the ‘banter years’. Tools, like having separate Twitter accounts, for each league, may add a small amount of interest but when the pervading attitude, below the Prem (and to a lesser extent, the Championship), is so negative, so dismissive, just so damn patronising, it is sometimes little wonder those at the top, try to bundle everything in together. The problems are much, much deeper than that. From the media, to fans, to club officials, this attitude moves like osmosis, starting at SFA/SPFL board level, throughout the Scottish game. You just need to see how League 1 and 2 executives were treated, in an emergency meeting, after the shutdown was announced. Muting microphones and refusing to take anything other than pre-submitted questions, is absolutely shameful. Sadly, this seems to sum up the mindset of those in charge.
There are not many solutions coming from the SPFL, as to how to return, and what should be done to support the lower and non-leagues upon resumption. It has been mooted to try and fit all fixtures, but this is, logistically, quite difficult unless the SPFL decide to move into the summer. That, though, causes issues with the Championship ending and the team in 9th place, potentially waiting for weeks to see who their opponent will be, coupled with concerns over player fitness. Could we move to just 18 games, so teams will have been home and away? Perhaps, though I suspect teams will use the convenient blanket of ‘sporting integrity’ to try to stop any promotion/relegation/playoffs. Neil Doncaster has uttered the dreaded ‘null and void’, a scenario this author has suspected was the end game from the start of the shutdown. This cannot, and should not, be allowed. Two curtailed seasons and two seasons without any pyramid playoffs, throughout all leagues, is simply unacceptable. It is a situation that could have been avoided, by playing last season to a conclusion, thereby at least finishing one season, when there was a distinct possibility a ‘second wave’ of Covid would hit the country hard. The argument was ‘clubs needed the money’, yet, according to various media reports, this had still not been received in December. Who is trying to kid who?
Colt teams has once again reared its head, with discussions about having Celtic and Rangers have their colts in League 2 and possibly promoting teams from the Lowland and Highland Leagues. But why should teams, who have spent considerable amounts to bring their club up to SFA, and in some cases SPFL, criteria, see two clubs have their youth teams entered into a league before them? What message does that send? ‘Sorry folks. We know you’ve spent this money but no thanks’. It is inexcusable that teams should show ambition (which apparently those lower down never do), only to see teams skip the queue, because those in charge are unable to come up with more forward thinking solutions. Yet again, it brings concerns for the wider pyramid structure. For all the SPFL mention ‘sporting integrity’, there seems little in such a scenario. Other ‘solutions’ appear to be some kind of reconstruction but often these fall short, mainly due to issues surrounding redistribution of monies and certain team’s reliance on TV money and/or visits from the Old Firm. Very little is said beyond these, many of which (apart from real, radical reconstruction), do not appear popular with fans – the group who are rarely, if ever, consulted on their views.
So, to bring it back to the title, who does care? It seems difficult to suggest that those in charge do. It is difficult to suggest a number of the footballing public do either. Scottish football continues to make the same errors, with little being done to look holistically at the game. Despite this, I was somewhat enthused by all 20 League 1 and 2 clubs coming together to say they would pay for testing, in order to return, even if out of pocket. This coming together, for the ‘good of the game’, is unfortunately rarer than a sighting of the Loch Ness Monster. Many of the concerns have been bubbling along since I started watching football. All this current situation shows, yet again, is just how much change is needed. There are some great people, with great ideas about how to transform Scottish football. Tapping into that is an absolute must. But will they be asked? Unlikely.