At the same time as the world was going absolutely bananas at the prospect of the European “Super League” where a select group of clubs play amongst themselves and hand pick or select a small number of other clubs to join them each year, while also ensuring that none of the old boys ever drop out; Scotland is seeing a far lower profile but similarly questionable debate against league formats and the “football pyramid” play out.
Rather than billionaire owners or sovereign investment funds, Scotland’s issue concerns Brechin City – currently bottom of League 2 and so looking towards a playoff with either Highland League Champions Brora or Lowland League counterparts Kelty for a place in next season’s competition. As part of the agreed Scottish football pyramid, for the past few years a system has been in place to offer a route to the top for clubs in the Highland or Lowland regions to gain access to the SPFL – a system which is still arguably weighted in favour of the existing SPFL teams by virtue of the need to go through a playoff rather than a straight relegation/promotion but nonetheless, it is an agreed and established route.
Now as with everything in the world, Covid has had an impact and as a result of the virus impact and the semi professional or part time nature of many clubs in the lower rungs of the SPFL or Highland/Lowland leagues the management of the virus, financial implications of no fans and testing amongst a variety of other issues have led to difficulties with completing seasons or matches safely – to this end, the Highland and Lowland Leagues have not been completed and instead the leagues have agreed to nominate champions on a points per game basis. This has been agreed by their members and has been verified as being legally competent by the SFA.
Brechin City have however launched an appeal of sorts against this and are seeking the postponement of the playoffs this year or wholesale reconstruction of the lower leagues in order to essentially wriggle out of having to play off for their league survival. Their chairman, who had a prominent seat on the board at the SPFL also recently resigned, just prior to this issue really blowing up.
Brechin state that it isn’t “fair” to impose the playoff system this year, due to the impacts of Covid and curtailed season. It does not however seem to be clear as to who the continuation of the playoff system would be unfair to.
For example, there have been very few games (3) played in the Highland League and so arguably every team there would have a case to say that over a much longer season they could have beaten Brora to the Championship. All conjecture of course, but a legitimate argument. However, as reigning Champions (who did not get to enter cancelled playoffs last year despite paying more games) the league as a whole agreed to declare them as Champions – agreed amongst all the member clubs and so a strong indication that notwithstanding any hypothetical “we could have won” arguments that Brora are accepted as being the Highland Champions. A similar situation played out in the Lowland League and as a result both leagues fulfilled their obligations of agreeing a Champion and putting forward candidates for the playoff. As above, a legal opinion obtained by the SFA has verified this as being competent and just – so there is no unfairness here.
Is it unfair to Brechin then? They are likely to finish bottom of League 2, albeit within a slightly Covid hit and curtailed season – but a season likely to be played to completion, with a reduced number of games, but completed without the need for a points per game average to be applied – so arguably much fairer than the hotly debated points per game system last year (Hearts fans need no reminding). So Brechin have had a full season (in a league format agreed by the clubs) in which to compete and essentially be the masters of their own destiny. Finishing bottom therefore is the sum total of their efforts, this isn’t the fault of Covid or Government restrictions, this is where they have finished based upon the agreed and level playing field that was agreed as the League 2 format for this year. Again – no obvious unfairness here.
So is it therefore the very principle of the prospect of relegation within these financially challenging times? This may be more pronounced than would be the case in a non Covid World – but as above this is an established and agreed process, the Covid impact and prospective financial implications or “we might have won more games without a curtailed season” argument didn’t save teams like Hearts or Partick Thistle previously. This season is more clear cut, there has been a full agreed fixture list played and so, arguably, Brechin have had the same opportunity as all other clubs to avoid relegation by earning it through points and wins. It again does not seem unfair to conclude that the process is completely fair this season.
Discussions will be had and influence will be exerted. At the time of writing we await the outcome of this, but anything other than the fulfillment of the agreed playoff structure would in itself be unfair and have remarkable similarities to the European Super League situation in terms of a long serving member club seeking to ensure that despite their own failings, that they retain a seat at the top table. This could be Scottish football’s own closed shop.